Organization: Parks Canada
Product: Publicatons
Year: 1984

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The Bank Fishery – The Age of Sail
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

100 years of Heritage Conservation

Canada’s first national park was established in 1885 at Banff, Alberta. Today there are national parks and national historic parks in every province and territory. The National Parks Centennial is an occasion to renew our commitment to preserve examples of our heritage unimpaired for the benefit of all Canadians.

The Bank Fishery – The Age of Sail

For more than four hundred years after John Cabot discovered the banks off Canada’s east coast in 1497, men came in sailing ships to fish with hook and line for the abundant codfish. The machine age has swept away this technology of wind and muscle power. Parks Canada’s exhibit, The Bank Fishery – The Age of Sail, commemorates the people, the ships and the gear who were a part of the Bank Fishery under sail.

The Banks

The banks are underwater plateaus which rise up along the length of the continental shelf. The banks’ unique mixture of cold arctic and warm southern waters, sunlight and seaborne nutrients supports a flourishing marine life. The fish which live on the banks are one of Canada’s greatest renewable natural resources.

The Greenfishery

By 1540, Europeans set out each spring to fish on the banks. The European bank fishery, or greenfishery, got its name from the method the Europeans used to preserve their catch. To prevent rotting, the fishermen gutted and salted the fish before stowing it in the ship’s hold. Months later, when the vessel returned home, the fish was still moist or “green”. The greenfishery was dominated by the French, though the Spanish, Portuguese and Basques also fished on the banks. The English used open boats to fish closer to shore. They lacked cheap supplies of salt and had to preserve their fish by drying it in the sun. European greenfishing ships were square rigged, averaged about 130 tons and carried a crew of 15 to 20. The crew fished from the deck of the ship with baited hooks on hand held lines weighted with lead. Voyages lasted four to six months.

The Colonial Bank Fishery

By the early 18th century, fishermen from New England had joined the French. The American colonists fished the banks off Nova Scotia and dried the catch at Canso, Nova Scotia, where they stayed during the fishing season. Due to crowding in their inshore fishing grounds, the British in Newfoundland and the French at Louisbourg (Cape Breton Island) also set up fleets.

The colonial bank fishery used a new type of vessel – the schooner. The schooner’s small size, about 20 metres long, and simple rig made it easier to handle than the greenfishing ships. Based closer to the banks, the schooners could make three or four fishing trips each season. A crew of 7 to 12 men fished with handlines, like those used on the greenfishing ships.

After the American Revolution (1776-83), New England fishermen, who could no longer use Nova Scotia as a base, continued to fish the banks from their home ports. In the early 19th century, a Nova Scotia bank fishery sprang up. At the same time the British bank fishery in Newfoundland disappeared in the face of increased competition from the French. Newfoundlanders were slow to develop their own bank fishery, preferring to concentrate on the Labrador fishery and the sealing industry. Crises in these industries led to the birth of the Newfoundland bank fishery in the 1870s.


The physical version of this product is part of the federal identity archive.