Until the early 1800s, fishing for a living was not a claim made by many Islanders. The commercial fishing industry is still young in PEI and in the Eastern Kings area. Although early in its prosperity, fishing is a livelihood that runs in families. As soon as children were old enough, they were taken to the shore and put to work. In the words of Mr. Robbie Robertson, “If you’re old enough to eat, you’re old enough to work. There was always a job to do.” Fishing in the early years was not limited to ‘seasons,’ fishermen fished year round.
According to Augustus “Gus” Gregory he began fishing because in the 1930s if you didn’t work for a farmer or have something else on your own, you had nothing else to do. When you began fishing you had something of your own, you worked for yourself. Many families combined fishing with their already strong farming background. Many fishermen split their time between the land and the shore. Even having a small farm was beneficial to those who made their livelihood off the sea.
Beginning a fishing career in the 1930s could be done for a steal, by today’s standards. Clive Bruce recalls paying $176 for all of his equipment combined. He earned the money for his set up by trapping a silver fox and selling it’s pelt to the Hudson Bay Company. This included an engine, as most of PEI’s fleet was motorized by the 1920s.
Hughie MacPhee began fishing out of North Lake Harbour in 1942. His boat was 23 feet long, and was designed and built by his father and uncle. The navigation system available to him was merely a compass and his own knowledge of the fishing grounds. This was common for many fishermen in the area.
In the early days of fishing in Eastern Kings, fishermen didn’t have access to a compass. Instead they would use the land fences of farmers, Mr. Gordon Robertson explains. The fences were positioned 5 chains apart which kept the boats separate.
The ground fishing industry consisted of fishing cod, hake, mackerel, smelts and trout. Eels were also speared through the ice in the winter months. Many fishermen would spend time fishing ground fish after or during lobster fishing. Once they had landed their lobster for the day, they would return to sea with trawls, in search of these ground fish. A trawl, is a line with other lines hanging from it, suspended by buoys and held in place with anchors. Attached to the lines are hooks, which catch the fish as it floats in the water. [Resembled a net.] Fish that were caught with these trawls would then be loaded into the boat, taken ashore, dressed and salted. Fishermen began salting fish in their own shacks on the shore. This practice continued until fish houses were built on both North Lake wharf and Basin Head wharf. The process of salting was key to keeping fish for an extended period of time, before the technology of refrigeration was available. Many of the fishermen kept the fish for their own food, but were also able to sell it. In the late fall of the year a boat would come from Boston, anchor off Red Point and fishermen would haul the fish out to meet this larger boat. Along with salting the fish, some would be dried throughout the heat of the summer. The dried fish would keep well for use throughout the year.
The end of the ground fishery could be seen in the early 1960s, with the onset of draggers fishing off the shores of PEI. Draggers, use large nets to catch the fish on the ocean floor and drudge up all of the sea life with them. This caused the amount of ground fish to deteriorate because little to no sea bed remains to live in.