Posted by: alexhickey | November 15, 2019

American Schooners in Newfoundland Herring Fishery, 1906 © Alex Hickey

American fishing schooners returned year after year to Fortune Bay to take part in the lucrative herring fishery. The Customs Office was located in St. Jacques which meant they would have to clear customs upon arrival and departure as well as pay any requisite fees.  Additionally, many local merchants harvested herring for sale to the Americans as well as to other countries.  The relationship, though sometimes strained, was mostly a friendly one.  This extensive contact over decades made local residents quite familiar with the port of Gloucester in Massachusetts.  It’s fishing captains and crews were on a first name basis with most residents of Fortune Bay. The names of American and Canadian schooners were widely known and easily recognized.

Gloucester was attractive to Newfoundland fishermen. Many emigrated to the United States while others worked there and commuted back to Newfoundland at the end of the season. Needless to say many men lost their lives at sea on these schooners.  Every community in Fortune Bay suffered this experience, some many times over.

The herring fishery had its good years and its bad years. 1906 was one of the bad years resulting in many of the Gloucester vessels going to the Bay of Islands to harvest bait.  The growth of the industry in that part of the country resulted in many fishermen moving from Fortune Bay to the Bay of Islands. Recently I read the report of the Commissioner of Fisheries, Joseph O’Rielly, which was presented to the Governor on February 19, 1907.  He noted that:

“ Herring was very scarce in Fortune Bay in the early Spring, but were fairly plentiful in Connaigre Bay, where a fair supply for bait purposes was obtained, especially so about the end of May or June. There was also a fair supply of small herring in Placentia Bay, and as the season advanced, they were more easily obtained. The herring seem to have temporarily forsaken this bay (Fortune Bay), which was known in former years as ‘the home of the herring.’ The supply of herring bait in the spring seems to be getting scarcer every year, many of the fishermen think it is only temporary. The regulation prohibiting the use of seines for taking herring, except for bait purposes, is working well, as it gives the fish a chance to come into shallower water to spawn.  The fishermen of the past two years report large quantities of small herring in Placentia, Fortune and Connaigre Bays, and as time went on have noticed the difference in their sizes.”(p. XI)

O’Rielly reported there was an abundance of Caplin all along the coast that year. They struck in Fortune Bay on June 18th and remained all season. Squid, on the other hand, were showing up in unusual places. They seemed to have avoided coves near headlands and were found further into arms and bays along the coast.

In his report, he went on to provide a list of the United States fishing vessels that had arrived in the Bay of Islands seeking herring. Most, if not all, would have been in Fortune Bay in previous years.   As you read through the list you will note that the names of several vessels are repeated.  I do not know if this was an error or if there were more than one vessel with the same name. You will also note that the vast majority of vessels hailed from the port of Gloucester.

Many of these American schooners arrived with minimal crews and would hire local men to assist them with fishing throughout the season.  When O’Rielly arrived in the Bay of Islands to observe the fishery he noted that many local fishermen were reluctant to go on board American vessels to fish. This was because a company operating locally, The Atlantic Fish Company, had advertised they would purchase all the fish the men could catch. Among local fishermen and business owners there was disgruntlement about the discrepancy of profits between what was received from the Americans and that which could be acquired when fish was processed locally.

Newfoundland men working aboard the American vessels were paid $1.25 per barrel for their herring but were required to pay for their nets and gear should they be lost. While this may have been reasonable on the part of the ships owners it stimulated a less honorable practice among some of the American fishermen.  Many of the American fishermen were novices unfamiliar with local conditions.  That, combined with their carelessness, meant they frequently lost their nets and gear. Knowing they would be charged for the price of replacing them they resorted to stealing the nets of their fellow workers. O’Rielly reported that he had received many complaints.  In some instances, nets, moorings and buoys had all been taken. In others, nets would be untied and removed, leaving moorings and buoys in the water.

As the season neared closing O’Rielly informed the Gloucester Captains and agents that all of the gear and nets brought to Newfoundland from the United States was admitted duty free when used bona fide for fishing purposes on and from their vessels and were not to be landed.  If any were sold to local fishermen it would be sized and the vessel and its owners would be liable to detention and fines under the Customs Laws.  As a result, none of the agents, with the exception of J. V. Bonia of Gordon Pew and Company, charged the fishermen for any gear lost or stolen.

These disputes were a continuation of disagreements between the two nations which had been occurring for almost half a century back in Fortune Bay.  Various attempts were made to legislate control of the herring fishery by the Newfoundland government which ended up in dispute among and between the Americans, Canadians, and French and British governments.  At one point in Fortune Bay there was a physical altercation between local fishermen and the Americans which resulted in an International Dispute dealt with through the courts. St. Jacques figured prominently in that event, but that is another story for another post.

Report of the Fisheries Protection Service of Newfoundland for the Year 1906 by Joseph O’Rielly, Commissioner of Fisheries, S. S. Fiona. February 1907.


  1. Alex,

    Always enjoy your work! Thank you!

    Best wishes to you and Hazel.

    Todd Young

    • Thanks Todd! Always appreciate someone taking time to give me feedback.

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