Just back from this year’s American Society for Environmental History conference in Toronto. As always it was a tremendous conference and all the more interesting to me given the emphasis on Canadian issues and landscapes and the increasing proportion of marine environmental history panels being featured. One of them I was fortunate enough to participate in–called “Reimagining the North Atlantic: Borders and Boundaries” featuring Bill Parenteau, Suzanne Morton, and myself with commentary from Richard Judd.
Tina Loo and Tina Adcock were good enough to share some thoughts and highlights of the panel on Twitter. I have compiled those into a Storify that can be found here. Also, if you’re interested in the Twitter stream from the conference generally, Sean Kheraj has aggregated it and made it available at his own blog at seankheraj.com. For anyone more interested in our panel now than they might have been at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, I have provided the text and audio from my own paper below and I’d invite comments, feedback, and continued discussion in the comments to this post. You can find some of my earlier thoughts on research at Grand Manan in Burning the Church: High Drama and Elusive Truth in Local History
“A Vile Calumny”: Local Fisheries, International Waters, and Scientific and Institutional Theories and Practices at Grand Manan
As may be fairly common, I have some profound frustrations with what I feel are shortcomings of my dissertation project—and this is a manifestation of a couple of them. The work looks at nineteenth century fisheries management in New England and the Maritimes and develops three parallel narratives that trace the developments of marine science, the development of institutions, and the implementation of enforcement mechanisms from the 1820s to the 1890s. While I identified these as the three critical ingredients to management and this approach, I think, enables me to satisfy the demands of my most basic argument—that fisheries were, in fact, managed during the 19th century—the approach inevitably leads to what often strikes me as somewhat hapless efforts to parse out the three into unique narratives, when, in fact, they are inherently intertwined in a variety of complex and colorful ways. So I need an approach that enables me to make the basic argument, but to also explore with greater depth and nuance the relationships between these three basic components—and of course add the complexity and the color back in. Nancy Langston just the other day challenged us to “think like a microbe,” and while I hadn’t thought about it in those analogical terms I think the picture I’m proposing and that I’ll try to provide a preliminary sketch of here today is in that spirit. Sean Kheraj followed up with a somewhat awkward use of the term “biogeography.”—though I’m not sure if the awkwardness was in his delivery of the term or the way it rattling around in my head. But my sense was that what he was really driving at was not biogeography so much as a geographical biography—and the need to perhaps mold a snappier term around that concept. But what Kheraj and Langston were advocating, in the context of explorations of Canada and the United States in environmental history, was precision of place and acknowledgement and interrogation of ecological eccentricities but with a continual awareness of the social, political and diplomatic dynamics of the border. In short, that’s what I’ve been wanting too.
The development of institutions in management regimes requires deploying the best available knowledge and information about the resource and the area in which it’s extracted. Very often we find science and policy related because science begets policy that is, ideally, informed by its findings. But frequently we also find scientific inquiry initiated by policy and the need to assess the effectiveness of management regimes or minimize transaction costs. This was the case for the Royal Commission that visited Grand Manan in 1836. The Commission was made up of six assemblymen of the Province of New Brunswick, two of whom represented Charlotte County, in which jurisdiction the island lay. In 1831, responding to calls from island fishermen, the Province enacted a law preventing fishing at certain seasons in an area that was identified as a spawning ground for the herring. The Commission hoped to determine what, if any, positive effects had resulted from passage of the law in an effort to discern the origins of local herring. In the absence of precise classifications of fish, it was known that fish very similar if not identical to the local herring of Grand Manan frequented a wide range of shores and near-coastal banks both in North America and Europe. What couldn’t yet be known was whether these were locally specific stocks in which the same fish migrated to and from the same spots or if herring were universally the same, emanating from some great northern herring place and migrating indiscriminately about the northern hemisphere. If it could be shown to be the former, it would then need to be accepted that local stocks could be irreparably damaged by interruptions in those critical annual cycles. If the latter theory held, there was little to legitimate laws to protect local abundance when that abundance was dictated by dynamics far beyond any local jurisdictional authority. The Commission interviewed local fishermen, predominantly elders, who could speak to fluctuations in abundance before and after passage of the law. A couple things emerged. On the one hand there seemed to be some consensus that catches of herring had improved in the first three or four seasons after passage of the law, but that those improvements had been tempered more recently as lax enforcement and disinterest, in their view, resulted in declining abundance once again. But what also emerged was a set of distinctly self-interested theories of ecological abundance. Elders seemed to think that around 1822 was when islanders and fishermen from away began to introduce larger nets into their herring fishery. Prior to that they had primarily fished by “torching”—a technique pursued at night and based on the theory that herring were attracted to light, fishermen mounted a torch at the bow of an open boat and took the fish in dip nets when they came towards it. Not surprisingly by the mid-1830s Grand Mananers were wedded to competing theories of resource decline: the torch fishermen blaming it on the nets, the net fishermen chalking it up to torching.(1) Even in 1836 stock assessments were as political as they were scientific. But the Royal Commission also noted that here was a fishery with abundance far beyond the ability of islanders to exploit it, that it had already attracted outsiders from St John, the Annapolis Basin, the southern coast of Nova Scotia and the United States. This would problematize management efforts for generations.
The geology, geomorphology, and hydrology of the marine spaces adjacent to Grand Manan make them comparatively nutrient-rich. Vertical and horizontal mixing of currents of various origins, temperatures, and salinities due to the drainage of major river systems in the region, the position of the island at the outlet of Cobscook and Passamaquoddy Bays and the Bay of Fundy, and the ecological dynamism occasioned by the planet’s most dramatic tides and tidal currents make the region enticing to small fish like herring—and as islanders noted regularly in their petitions to the legislature and their testimony to the several commissioners, surveyors, and natural historians who visiting the island, the health and abundance of small fish like the herring ensured them access to larger fish like cod, haddock, hake, and pollock, which pursued the herring into near coastal spaces and within the range of the small scale fishermen of the island. They recognized that by acting to protect spawning grounds for the herring, they were, by extension, protecting both the diversity and sustainability of their fisheries more generally.
John Robb visited Grand Manan in 1840 and described the population there in the most wretched terms—a place favored by incalculable richness in marine resources but a population so lacking for basic education, public health and necessities of life that it was unable to sustain the spirit of enterprise and industry required to access it. Robb was a Royal Navy Commander charged with fisheries protection, and from his view, the islanders inability to adequately participate in their own fishery was a problem in its own right, but the bigger related problem was that other users groups were filling the void and were inclined, as outsiders, to exploit in irresponsible ways.(2) What’s more it was creating informal definitions of access rights that it would be very difficult to undo without an overwhelming investment in enforcement to impose new institutional arrangements.
In 1851 Moses Perley was on Grand Manan—also at the behest of the provincial government to conduct his noted survey of the Fundy shore, which was the chronicle of a journey that took him and his son from Grand Manan to Brier Island, circling the entire shore of the Bay of Fundy and describing its several fisheries. Perley’s descriptions of the Grand Mananers could not be more different from Robb’s. Perley described an industrious people carrying on a robust fishery despite laboring under disadvantages of scale with respect to their neighbors across the channel. Part of his objective was to make recommendations to the province for how to both expand and protect the fishery—a seemingly paradoxical mandate that would be systematically cast on every fisheries commission and committee throughout the nineteenth century and at just about every jurisdictional layer. (3)
In the early 1850s Grand Manan was not only building itself into a minor fishing power, it was also becoming a diplomatic football in ways that would have both geopolitical and local significance. The British objective was to gain trade concessions from the Americans and many, though certainly all, in the Maritime colonies of British North America were willing to trade access to their inshore fisheries for access to the ever-growing American marketplace. But before they could sell that access to the Americans, they needed to demonstrate that they could actually prevent them from just taking it. They needed to assert their ability to restrict American fishermen from the territorial seas around the region—Grand Manan and the Fundy Isles became a particular focal point of this effort, due not only to its proximity to the border (itself only clarified 10 years earlier by the Webster Ashburton treaty), but to the fact that islanders had more extensive kinship connections to Maine than to New Brunswick, and that based on these they had built informal commercial networks predicated on co-ownership, cooperation, and smuggling. When the British Navy assigned a fleet to go to the Fundy isles and impose order and a strict interpretation of the Convention of 1818, which defined access rights on paper, if not so much in practice, they were asking them to dismantle some intricate informal networks of collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and commerce that were two generations or more in the making. Their task was virtually impossible, but the paper trail of their hapless efforts to perform it, are absolute gold!!(4) They found vessels that were co-owned by British subjects and American citizens, with split crews so they could justifiably fish in Canadian waters and sell their catches at Eastport, Maine. They found British vessels with American registries, American vessels with British registries, vessels with dual registries, vessels with no registries, and vessels with multiple forged and fabricated registries that were carrying multiple flags to boot. They seized American vessels in British waters only to get to the admiralty court in St John and find everyone on board was from Grand Manan—and because you can only try a person and not an object, it was difficult to argue that islanders were fishing illegally within sight of their own homes. On top of which, the Royal Navy patrols were ill-suited to duty in the Bay of Fundy. They didn’t know the area and had difficulty navigating in and out of the tiny inlets and harbours of the coast with their over-sized men-of-war. The much smaller schooners evaded them with ease. Fog and heavy winds, which natives of the region recognize as near constant, gave them fits, and, as several commanders complained, they had no support among the locals whose interests they were there to protect. In some cases, the islanders were more invested in noncompliance with fishing laws and treaty provisions than the American were. Just when Navy commanders managed to bank some local knowledge of the coast and of the people, they were reassigned to duty elsewhere in the vast empire. Commander Kynaston reported that the cause of protecting the fisheries would be greatly advanced by enabling protection patrols to gain some familiarity and remain in their duty long enough to actually use it.(5)
The Reciprocity Treaty, I argue in my dissertation, needs to be reimagined as a resource management treaty. Economic historians have pretty well exhausted the questions of who benefited from its trade arrangements and why. We need now to understand the various dynamics relating to the redefinition of access rights in the fishery. The opening of the inshore grounds by international agreement, created (or at least exacerbated) serious problems at the local level in the Maritimes, and Grand Manan was no exception. With other user groups allowed inshore, islanders needed to take further steps to ensure the long term viability of stocks—which meant more vigorous protection of the spawning grounds. The Charlotte County wardens appointed Daniel McLaughlin an overseer of the fisheries. Like the Royal Navy commanders, though, his troubles were many. His payment was slow in coming when it came at all. As a subcontractor he was paid out of the salary granted to the Charlotte County wardens James Brown and John Alexander—which meant he wasn’t paid until they were. Often wardens pay was supplemented by receiving a cut of the taxes collected on weirs and other fishing apparatus and fines levied against offenders. But there was nothing and no one to make fishermen pay the taxes when they were levied—and if the warden wanted to get a constable to help him collect, that cost came out of his own pocket. As did the legal fees paid to magistrates when they brought offenders up on charges. So they only collected if they secured a conviction…short of that they lost money on performing their duties. Magistrates were often unable to be found, and even more often unwilling to convict or even try offenders. As was the case on Grand Manan, the magistrates were invested in the fishing industry…some of these guys worked for them. Daniel McLaughlin attempted to keep trespassers off the spawning grounds off the southern head of Grand Manan by rowing, each night around the grounds, often seizing nets set there illegally.
In 1853 Samuel Buchanan, a fisherman from St John, complained to the Provincial Secretary that not only had McLaughlin seized his nets on the spawning grounds, he had, in doing so, deliberately overlooked the nets of Grand Manan fishermen set nearby. “Mr. McLauchlan does not give the same Law to all parties,” Buchanan wrote. He openly admits in his letter that he was fishing illegally on the spawning grounds, but asks that Partelow open an inquiry into the uneven conduct of the local overseer.(6) McLaughlin promptly answered Buchanan’s charge, proclaiming that he had never heard of Buchanan, let alone seized nets from him—“a vile calumny,” he called it. The only nets he had seized that season on the spawning grounds belonged to Captain John Trecarton of the schooner Princess, also of St. John. As evidence of his own impartiality, and of the inherent difficulties of his work, the Princess was actually being piloted at the time by Randall Smith of Grand Manan. Smith was not only a neighbor of McLaughlin’s, he was also the Deputy Sheriff of the island, one who might be expected to be more of an ally than an obstacle when it came to enforcing the law. McLaughlin also stated that since the law had passed in 1851 he had seized a total of eight nets, half of which belonged to residents of his own island. McLaughlin’s zeal and watchfulness when it came to the spawning grounds was widely hailed by the wardens to whom he reported, the captains of Royal Navy cruisers who patrolled the region, and local fishermen. He told the Provincial Secretary that “if Mr Buchanan lost any nets it was not by me & if he Fished on the Spawning ground unknown to me he must be a skillful poacher.”(7).
The need for specificity of place is not something we need to remind ourselves of as environmental historians generally. But as marine environmental historians, I think a nudge in that direction is not without some utility. We have made some noble efforts to dismiss the notions of vastness and mysticism in which the ocean was so long wrapped. We need to go further and recognize that marine locality is critical to understanding a fishery. Even just the limited observations of Grand Manan that I’ve provided here demonstrate how science, policy, and enforcement were intertwined in numerous ways…in the nineteenth century very often those charged with enforcing the laws were best situated to make systematic observations both of ecological phenomena and the human behaviors that accompanied them. Such forays into not just bioregionalism but a more focused “geo-biography” (still clunky) enable us to place collective action dramas into the more complex narratives that are better reflective of the stages upon which they actually took place. Connections between science and policy become more realistic and nuanced, but we also make more room for TEK and LEK systems and the importance they held within communities and the ways they shaped more conventional approaches to advancement and dissemination of scientific understanding. It enables us to better understand resource communities that sought to maintain moral economies while at the same time escalating management responsibilities to higher authorities with more power and means but less ecological sensitivity and far less local credibility. It even opens pathways for marine environmental historians to begin to incorporate gender as some of the anthropological studies of eastern fishing communities in Canada For all its analytical merit, bioregionalism can easily lead to a homogenization of fishermen, a simplification of their motivations, their interests, their complaints, and their conflicts. A collection of ecological biographies of place that depict the evolving relationships between people and resources offer more promising prospects for my own work and may provide an effective avenue for making better sense of the various ecological, national, jurisdiction, territorial, and organizational lines we draw through the sea.
1. The Royal Commission report can be found in a number of places, but a good compilation of the committee report, the rebuttal of the two Charlotte County representatives (who refused to endorse the conclusions) and the testimony of the fishermen from Grand Manan is in The Grand Manan Historian volume 8 (1964) under the title: “Report of a Royal Commission on the State of the Grand Manan Fisheries (1836).”
2. John Robb’s report to the assembly appears in the 1841 Journals of the Assembly of the Province of New Brunswick and in The Grand Manan Historian volume 9 (1965), under the title: “The Robb Report: state of the fisheries, the condition of the lighthouses, the contraband trade, and various other matters in the Bay of Fundy (1840)”.
3. Moses Perley, Report Upon the Fisheries of the Bay of Fundy, (Fredericton: J. Simpson, Printer, 1851).
4. Many such reports appear in printed form in the Journals of the House of the Assembly of the Province of New Brunswick for 1852 to 1854. Several more such reports, however, can be found in the collections of Provincial Secretary relating to fisheries: RS 564 A 1852, 1853, and 1854. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
5. Kynaston to Seymour, October 22, 1852. RS 564 A 1852. PANB.
6. Buchanan to Partelow, October 11, 1853, RS 564 A 1853. PANB.
7. McLaughlin to Partelow, October 28, 1853, RS 564 C 1853. PANB.
Thanks to Rob Gilmore of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick and especially to Ava Sturgeon of the Grand Manan Museum and Archives for their research assistance. Also to Mark McLaughlin, Jason Hall, Teresa Devor, and Katherine O’Flaherty who have listened to me work through some of these ideas and contributed their valuable thoughts and ideas. And to the Alice Stewart Lecture Series of the University of Maine’s Canadian American Center for giving me an opportunity to test drive an earlier version in advance of the Toronto meeting of the ASEH.