The early French explorers told of the abundance of fish surrounding the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In their journals, they wrote about seeing the water all around their vessels black with cod, and listening as thousands of fish bumped against their hulls. Sailing into the Gulf of St. Lawrence was like sailing on a sea of fish. Cod was an important part of the European diet, as the Catholic church dictated that fish must be eaten every Friday. In the 1700s, French fishermen would come and live on the shores of the Island (then called L'Ile St-Jean) to fish from early spring until late fall, after which they would return home with the flaked and dried fish.
By the early 1800's, Americans were also fishing in the Gulf waters and continued to do so throughout the nineteenth century, according to reciprocal treaties they had reached with the British and Canadian governments. At the start of the nineteenth century, Islanders were not involved in the commercial fishery on any large scale. Because of the availability of fish, however, settlers depended on it to supplement the often less reliable supply of food coming from their recently cleared farmland. Cod, shellfish, and eels were all staples in the diet of early settlers. Fish was mixed in with the feed for farm animals, as well as being used as fertilizer on the fields.
By the mid-nineteenth century, fishing was becoming less and less of a survival tactic and more a way of making a living. In 1860, there were approximately 2,300 people engaged in the fishing industry on the Island. The chief groundfish exports were cod, herring, gaspereaux, mackerel, and cod liver oils-- much to the chagrin of children everywhere. The main fish harvested off the shores of P. E. I. was mackerel, and its rich white flesh proved to be a solid seller.
The 1886 letters of a Mr. John T. O'Brien tell how he travelled to P.E.I. in search of work with one of the fishing establishments on the north shore. Luck was on O'Brien's side. When he arrived at the Kensington railway station, he was offered a ride by a relative of Neil Macleod, who owned one of the local fish operations. O'Brien and the driver of the rig got to talking, and before the ride was over, he was promptly offered a job. He describes in great detail how the hands on board made their living from mackerel catches. The men kept half of the catch and sold it themselves, and the other half went back to Macleod to pay for their living quarters in the boat.
The cod fishery grew steadily throughout the nineteenth century, despite some of the problems posed by the Island climate. The summer sun sometimes was too hot to dry the cod properly, and the sand from the dunes would often blow over the prepared fish.
The rise of the oyster fishery in the mid-1800s was a major boon to the Island fishing industry. Between 1876 and 1910, over 850,000 barrels of the unsightly-- but delicious-- shellfish were pulled from Island waters, with over half of this amount coming off the shores of Malpeque Bay. Malpeque oysters were entered in the International Exposition in Paris in the 1880's and won the title for the world's best. The Island oyster, rumored to be a natural love-potion, took the City of Love by storm!
Perhaps Island oysters became too famous, however, because their popularity led to overfishing. The molluscs all but disappeared from some bays around Prince Edward Island, and a once bountiful area like Malpeque was reduced to a shadow of its former harvests. While the industry went into rapid decline in the 1930s, it has managed to survive to the present day, with 179 fisherman active in 1997.
Besides oysters, Islanders also fish other molluscs, such as soft shell clams, bar clams, quahaugs, and mussels. The past decade has seen dramatic growth in the export of cultured mussels, and there are now over a hundred mussel fishermen on the Island. These fishermen-- sometimes called mussel farmers-- maintain and harvest their mussel lines all year round, even hauling the blue molluscs through the ice during the winter season.
Fishermen have filled their nets in Island waters for over two hundred years, and it once seemed impossible that the sea's abundance would ever diminish. But now, Islanders are now starting to feel the hard consequences of overfishing. The federal moratorium in the ground fish sector has left boats tied up, bringing financial hardship to Island fishermen. While there were once more than 850 ground fishermen, the number still has dwindled to just over 300, and catches are only a fraction of what they used to be. Some are concerned that the lobster fishery is headed in the same direction as the ground fish sector. Hopefully, the lessons of the past can prevent the cod from joining the endangered species list, a proposition that would have seemed unimaginable for the first French fishermen who sailed into the Gulf.