Fisheries were critical to both the subsistence and economies of colonial North America. French, Portuguese, Spanish, and English fishermen were visiting the fisheries off Newfoundland as early as the sixteenth century, while various Native American tribes were using the same sites much earlier. Although fishing was a major part of the economy for the coastal areas of most of the American colonies, it was the bastion of the New England economy. Poor, rocky soil dominated the region, while the nearby waters of the Grand Banks were abundantly populated with cod, mackerel, and halibut.
Generally, merchants from Boston controlled the market, selling the best fish down the Atlantic coast for flour and tobacco. Mediocre-grade fish went to southern Europe in trade for wine and salt, while the lowest-grade fish was shipped to the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean as food for slaves. The dependence on fishing spurred the development of other businesses in New England, particularly shipbuilding and its related industries, shipping and transport services, as well as various commercial and financial activities.
While many nations harvested the abundant fisheries of North America, their methods differed a great deal, depending on the market and the availability of salt. If salt was readily available at reasonable prices, then fishermen produced extraordinarily salty fish that was then sold to northern European markets, where people were accustomed to heavily pickled foods. Called the green fishery method, it required that large vessels troll the deep offshore waters in search of fish, which were liberally salted onshore and carried wet in the belly of the ship to market.
When salt was expensive or not plentiful, fishermen used the dry fishery method. Smaller vessels plied the waters closer to the coast to catch lesser cod, which was lightly sprinkled with salt and dry-cured to rock hardness onshore in the open air. Fish preserved using the dry fishery method went exclusively to markets in warm climates, where the lower moisture content reduced the likelihood of spoilage.
Because both methods depended on landing onshore, fishermen established themselves in every part of coastal North America, where productive inshore fisheries, suitable harbors, and plentiful timber reserves adjoined one another. The abundant fisheries of the northern Atlantic, especially off the coasts of Newfoundland (pictured here) and New England, were the primary source of subsistence and the economic foundation of colonial North America. (The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library) Since fishing expeditions meant long periods away from home, vessels carried everything needed for the voyage in their holds: salt, water and provisions, fishing equipment, various materials needed for repairing and maintaining the ship, nails and boards for constructing small fishing boats, and a wide variety of tools.
Life on board fishing vessels was uncertain and harsh, but a successful voyage could bring huge profits for all involved from fishermen and ship captains to investors ashore. With so many peoples visiting the abundant fisheries of the Grand Banks, it should be no surprise that a great deal of tension arose concerning fishing rights. Although the long-standing rivalry between Britain and France created an unending strain, Britain received overall control of the fisheries at the end of the Seven Years' War, or the French and Indian War, as it was known in the colonies.
After the American Revolution, the former colonies acquired the right to fish along Newfoundland and Nova Scotia through the Treaty of Paris, but these rights were revoked with the outbreak of the War of 1812 and never officially restored. The United States and Canada would squabble for nearly 100 years before joint usage was finally agreed upon in 1910. Solomon K.
Smith See also: Atlantic Ocean; Food and Diet; Newfoundland. Bibliography Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955. Lydon, James G.“Fish for Gold: The Massachusetts Fish Trade with Iberia, 1700 1773. ” New England Quarterly 54: 4 (1981): 539 82.
Vickers, Daniel. Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630 1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
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