Frontage, Flake Stuff, and Pilots


Each of the documents shown in this post can be found in RG 1 vol. 256 nos. 166-177 MF Reel 15350, Public Archives of Nova Scotia. Click to enlarge image.

Since my trip out to Ketch Harbour last week, that I documented in Ground-truthing Portuguese Cove and Ketch Harbour, I returned to the archives with a different set of filters.  Because these communities were so small, and existed on land so ill-suited for other purposes, it seemed to me that pretty much any material I could dredge up about these communities was, in effect, informing my understanding of the coastal fisheries of Nova Scotia.  I set aside the chronological parameters I had established for my larger work to see what I could see of the origins and early development of these settlements.   What I’ve seen, amongst other things, is a series of long-running rivalries animating the fisheries of Halifax’s Western Shore.  And, much like the research itself, these rivalries extended to all facets of coastal life but also bespoke volumes about the nature and management of the fishery.  Parsing out issues of land ownership and management, church-going, and education in such places only limits the richness of the story that could be told.

One of the beauties of a blog post is that you can strut out speculations and half-formed thoughts without concern for how they may be received by the four of five viable peer reviewers that most of us have in our tiny little silos.  I’ll leave the challenge of gaining entry into the secret society of fisheries historians (can you imagine the meetings?) for another day.  For today I want to test drive some ideas gleaned from my scattershot research “plan” (which when it has existed at all has primarily been scrawled on cocktail napkins) which has, of necessity, swung back and forth from examination of diplomatic correspondence and treaty provisions to the lived experience of real people in the coastal communities of the past.  While I fully acknowledge the importance of context, I think I would join with pretty much anybody in asserting that the latter is far more interesting.

When we say that local communities established resource management regimes, the assumption follows that these were cooperative arrangements.  And if we look carefully we can certainly see instances in the archival record of coastal fishermen cooperating with one another for the greater good.  But this assumption, I believe, draws heavily upon our inclination to liken resource management to conservation.  Indeed, in much of the literature to date, we trace the emergence of both to roughly the same Progressive Era roots.  There is some extraordinary literature on the emergence of conservation, and certainly there are correlations to be made to resource management.  But they are not the same by any stretch.  My larger work argues for imposing a division between the two—asserting that only when we have relieved resource management of the freight of conservation can we begin to trace its much deeper origins into earlier periods.  There were cooperative elements to resource management regimes, but such arrangements need also to be understood as efforts, often feeble ones at that, to balance out the rampant self-interest of competing user groups.

On the western shore of Halifax Harbour the story of fisheries management played itself out on a series of seemingly unrelated stages.  Much of this had to do with ownership of and access to land.  The peninsula out to Chebucto Head consists of much exposed granite and very limited topsoil.  It is highly exposed and windswept and not conducive to much cultivation or even much more than scrubby coastal woodland.  In the eighteenth century grants were doled out by the Crown via the Lieutenant Governor to establish this area as a fishery—with limited private plots dispensed for settlement and an understanding that large tracts would be reserved in common for the greater benefit of the fishery itself.  For most, this meant cutting of the woodland tracts.  While the timber was useless to the construction and shipbuilding markets, it was of great utility for heating fuel and for the building of stages or “flakes” for drying fish.  However, in the nineteenth century as the communities of the western shore began to expand, residents fought tooth and nail against the granting of further tracts to new settlers.  They argued that to grant additional Crown lands to individuals violated the initial mandate that such lands be held in common.  According to Surveyor General Charles Morris, they had a tendency to dramatically overstate their need for “flake stuff”—as they called the scrubby coastal timber.  Many of their tracts were several hundred acres and teemed with flake stuff.  Morris suspected, and he was probably right, that the real concern of the local fishermen was the entry of additional settlers into their fishery.  Controlling the land, or seeking to, was a means of maintaining a limited entry system.

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Click to enlarge image.

In later decades contests and controversies over coastal land became less about flake stuff and more about frontage.  As I mentioned in my last post, the result of an 1836 dispute was the codification of a lottery system in which seine owners from Portuguese Cove to Ketch Harbour entered and were granted their own “turn” to haul their seines.  The creation of such a system reflected the fact that the seines needed to be landed on shore for the processing of the fish, but because of the character of the coast, the number of places to do that safely were very few.  Thus the need to take turns.  This made the waterfront tracts in Cape Cove, Gulsh Cove, and Gill Cove especially valuable to the fishermen.  By the 1840s many of the fishermen were seeking grants of small tracts in those coves—whereby they could subvert the lottery system by claiming exclusive right to the precious spots where fish could practicably be landed.  Ironically, many of the same men who protested most vociferously over the granting of lands rich in “flake stuff” were the very same men who vied most contentiously for ownership of the waterfront, with which they could exclude their competitors, their neighbors (sorry, neighbours!).  The lottery system could only survive if these spots continued to be held in common.

Another arena in which the fishermen competed with one another was piloting.  Today seaports have a coast pilot who comes aboard to take large ships into port.  This is an individual with a keen local knowledge of the depths, currents, and dangers that the harbor presents to navigation.  As the coasting trade was proliferating in the early nineteenth century, there was no designated pilot for Halifax harbour.  And as the fishermen often noted, the position of the harbour head light was such that ships unfamiliar with the lay of the land would steer for the light and towards the western shore and the fishing grounds—which also happened to be some of the most dangerous areas to navigation, and required a skilled pilot to negotiate.  One problem with the growth of the coasting trade was the increased likelihood of fishing gear becoming ensnared in the rudder assemblies of passing ships.  But another problem was the market for pilots.  Before it was designated as an office for a particular person or group of people, it was an open market.  Approaching ships would signal by flags their desire for a coast pilot to bring them ashore.  Often freelancing fishermen would abandon their usual avocations and row for the ship to sell their services and local knowledge to master and owner.  The problems with this arrangement were many.  Often it resulted in inexperienced and incompetent pilots steering large ships and valuable cargoes through tricky waters.  But there was also no established rate of pay for a pilot obtained through such informal practices.  The process of piloting a ship ashore could often take many hours if not more than a day.  A day lost to fishing, and a day compensated at the behest of vessel owners, often absentee ones, who had little regard for the skill set that had been required to do it.  Pay was unpredictable and often quite low.  There was also no guarantee you’d get the job.  When the flag went up, often several fishermen would row for the ship, with the job going to the first to arrive.  On at least one occasion the crew of the ship raised a flag, and after several hours of watching boats approach from all sides, declared to the exhausted fishermen, that they didn’t actually want a pilot—they had just sought the entertainment of a boat race!


Click to enlarge image.

Because of these problems, several of the fishermen sought to consolidate piloting into the hands of an experienced few—which would enable them to dictate terms and standardize pay rates.  But this was resisted by much of the larger population of fishermen because it represented a loss of important, albeit unpredictable, supplemental revenue.  Not to mention that such a move heaped a degree of prestige and importance on the task, while simultaneously giving it to someone else.  I haven’t yet determined exactly when Halifax appointed a coast pilot and put a stop to this free-for-all marketplace, but what primarily interests me about these dynamics is how land management and acquisition and the proliferation of the coasting trade effected the lived experience of the fishermen and created arenas in which they vied against one another for their independence and financial sustainability.

Another nice thing about communities that are so modest in size is that the same names recur frequently.  What I’m interested to explore next is the role that church affiliation may have played in fisheries management.  The community of Ketch Harbour was originally settled by immigrants from Genoa, Italy in the 1760s.  In subsequent decades Loyalists arrived from New England, immigrants from Scotland, and British military personnel transplanted from all corners of the burgeoning empire.  Clearly in inshore fishing communities, church going played a much more central role in the lives of the fishermen than for bankers or men of distant water Newfoundland or Labrador fleets.  And given the diversity of origins, and the central role that sectarian strife played in the political development of the province more generally, it would be naïve to expect that fishing disputes did not also have some sectarian elements.  In the nineteenth century these communities grew and parishes were realigned, creating ever-changing church affiliations.  I am very interested to compare the names on petitions to those of church rolls to see if participation in like churches yielded alliances in the continual contests over access to the local fishery.

Often the best evidence of resource management comes from looking at how localized communities behaved in arenas seemingly unrelated to the resource in question.  Not sure if this makes the job of the researcher easier or more difficult!