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The Commercial Fishery of the Canadian Great Lakes.

The Commercial Fishery of the Canadian Great Lakes This short study, prepared for Parks Canada in 1985, appears in its monographic series. In fourteen brief chapters, which in total comprise fewer than eighty pages of text, the book provides a balanced overview of economic, organizational, ecological, regulatory, and technological aspects of its subject. The text is enhanced by maps, tables, many well-chosen illustrations, and a good bibliography. There is no index. In relative terms, the Canadian Great Lakes fishery was never terribly significant, and in the twentieth century it has been dwarfed in economic significance by sport fishing. Fortunately, McCullough's story is no less interesting for the modesty of its subject.

The principal markets for the Canadian fishery were always New York and Chicago, though McCullough says less about the nature of demand and competition in those markets than one would like. Americans were legally barred from holding licenses to fish in Canadian waters, but in the nineteenth century, American middlemen often provided credit to Canadian fishermen and contracted for their catches. Sometimes fish were transferred on the water to American boats for delivery to American ports, but more commonly fresh and frozen fish were shipped by rail (and later truck) from Canadian ports. On Lake Erie, which tends to be the focus of the volume, fishermen worked from small ports, none of which had more than a modest percentage of the licensed fishermen. The work was seasonal, and crews, which numbered no more than six to eight, were commonly paid in shares. Although sail gave way to steam in most areas in the later nineteenth century and steam to diesel in the twentieth century, financing even the most expensive boats does not seem to have called for great capital.

A surprisingly extensive set of regulations, whose roots are not always clear, gave formal structure to the industry, but McCullough's treatment of public policy leaves the impression that it was actually a quite minor factor. Only since the 1950s have licenses been seriously limited in number, requirements for closed seasons were routinely waived under political pressure from fishermen, and fishermen regularly bent or stretched other regulations. An extensive government program of fish hatcheries had no demonstrable impact. In short, at the producing end, this was in many respects a classic decentralized industry.

That did not prevent one great merger, led by Booth Fisheries of Chicago, in 1898. Until its failure in 1909, the "fish trust" combined fresh and saltwater fisheries on a continental scale. Since then, the Canadian industry has typically supported one or two leading firms at a time, based on packing and shipping. McCullough stresses growing corporate dominance of the industry, yet until quite recently even the leading firms seem to have been locally controlled family operations. Growth in tonnage and value of catch per fisher has come principally by adapting to ecological change by changing species caught. It is not clear how much continuity there has been in the leading ports and fishing families themselves, or whether new leaders and new communities have succeeded old as the fishery has evolved.

McCullough draws effectively on two sets of business manuscripts, but more use of such material, if it exists, would have given a sharper sense of fishermen's and businessmen's strategies in the trade. Within the constrictions of limited space and a topical organization that forces each chapter to survey up to 150 years of change in a few pages, this is a fascinating book, offering an unfamiliar perspective on the Great Lakes, one focused not on major cities and the strategies of leading entrepreneurs but on the tiny ports and human-scale vessels that sailed from them.

Douglas McCalla is professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Trent University, Peterborough. His most recent publication is an edited volume, The Development of Canadian Capitalism: Essays in Business History (1990). Currently he is completing a volume on the economic history of Upper Canada, 1784-1871, for the Ontario Historical Studies Series.
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Author:McCalla, Douglas
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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