Fishers without borders

Brian Payne, Edward MacDonald, Rainer Baehre

Fish don’t much care for borders. They have this pesky habit of freely swimming between the United States and Canada without so much as even once stopping at border control. And despite the best efforts of the United States, Canadian, and British governments over the past two-hundred-plus years, it seems that fishermen don’t much care for borders either.

At this year’s ASEH conference historians from Prince Edward Island, Massachusetts, and Newfoundland will deliver three papers that explore how fishermen in the nineteenth century were often able to use the confusing territorial authority in the North Atlantic to make the best of a dangerous work environment and equally volatile market.

Edward MacDonald of the University of Prince Edward Island will show how, despite the island’s close proximity to rich fishing grounds, early British policy emphasized farming over fishing on Prince Edward Island, leaving Americans to dominant the fishing resource off the island’s north shore. Even when the local government attempted to promote an indigenous fishery after 1829, that local fishing industry was spearheaded by American operations. The relationship, then, between the New England fishing fleets and Prince Edward Island exposes several issues of identity connected to place and economy, for example, the Island’s agrarian-versus-marine dialectic, the degree to which an indigenous “Island” fishery might actually have been termed an American one, and the status of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence as a borderland where both cultural and physical boundaries were permeable.

Brian Payne of Bridgewater State University will tell the tale of Ebenezer Marshall. Marshall was born in New England to immigrant parents, but moved to Prince Edward Island in 1854 where he married a local woman and raised a family in Rustico. By claiming British residency Marshall sought to fish the inshore waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but by claiming American citizenship he sought to sell those fish in the Boston market without paying import dues. Marshall’s lived experience in this contested space illustrates how individuals could redefine themselves as well as their environments as they moved between the various hierarchies of place. The local village in Prince Edward Island, the profitable marketplace in Boston, the physical environment of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the geo-political contours of the British Empire where structures that defined Marshall’s identity, but were also structures that Marshall sought to redefine and manipulate for his own ends.

Rainer Baehre of Memorial University, Corner Brook, explores contested fishing claims and treaty violations between the government of Newfoundland and the United States, as described in witness testimony by claimants on both sides, as to whether American rights under the Convention (Treaty) of 1818 had been met or violated between 1877 and 1910. In the case of the latter, a primary focus was the disputed collection of custom and light duties involving the Bay of Islands of western Newfoundland, the most important source of herring bait for large New England companies, such as Gorton-Pew of Gloucester. In a broader sense these disputes pitted economic protectionists against supporters of free trade. A major grievance reflected in these disputes involved the issue of environmental conservation and access to the bait fishery and how it was exercised along the French and American Shores of Newfoundland. In establishing the validity of these claims, the court called upon parties from both countries to describe the nature of the American fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and especially western Newfoundland waters. These detailed stories provide rich material for understanding not only the nature of international conflict over the fisheries but also concerns about species degradation and environmental sustainability, how the American fisheries operated, and the way in which inshore fishers responded in regions such as Fortune Bay and the Bay of Islands.

All three papers will address the key challenge that faced nineteenth-century fishermen. The best fish were in Canadian waters, but the best fish market was in the United States. The challenge for Canadian fishermen was to get into the more profitable American markets. The challenge for American fishermen was to get into the richer Canadian waters. Although at times (1854-1866 for example) the governments negotiated “free fish for free fisheries” deals, most of the nineteenth century was period of conflicting territorial and market claims. During those times, fishermen joined the fish in their persistent violation of political boundaries.

These papers will be delivered on Panel 10-E, Algonquin, Saturday, April 6, 3:30-5:00.

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Brian teaches environmental and economic history at Bridgewater State University. The focus of his teaching and research is resource economics, particularly fisheries, and the environmental history of New England and Atlantic Canada. His current project examines the environmental, labor, and consumer history of processed seafood. Brian is also the coordinator of the Northeast-Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum.

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