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Cod and Confederation

The Story

As Newfoundland enters Confederation in 1949, the cod fishing industry is faced with several important changes in the way it operates. Post-Second World War technology has resulted in high-powered ships, new dragging nets and, perhaps most importantly, affordable freezing systems. The technological leaps mean higher and more profitable catches, but also usher in the rise of the fish stick and the imminent demise of the 500-year tradition known as salt cod. This documentary clip looks at the tidal shift that took place in the cod fishery during the 1950s.

Medium: Television
Program: Happy Union
Broadcast Date: Oct. 10, 1958
Duration: 5:21
Excerpt from "Happy Union" courtesy of the Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Archives.

Did You know?

• This clip was produced by Atlantic Films in 1958, and broadcast on CBC Television.
• According to the 1959 book The Story Of Newfoundland, prior to the First World War "40,000 persons [were] engaged in the catching and the curing of fish and the average annual export of dry salt codfish exceeded a million hundredweight. [100 million kilograms]." The book says the annual export had reached 190 million kilograms by 1919.

• When the Second World War broke out, fishing ships were pulled for use in the war effort, halting the cod fishing industry. After the war was over, the fish population was booming in the North Atlantic.
• By the time Newfoundlanders narrowly voted to join the rest of Canada, a number of technological advancements had thrust the fishery in a new direction.

• Large factory ships with trawling nets allowed for more efficient catches and nearly 24-hour schedules. Cod catches during the 1950s increased every year in most fisheries throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
• Other advances in offshore fishing saw boats that were able to hold 4,000 tonnes of fish, with nets as wide as jumbo jets. "Rock hoppers" (plastic disks that allowed nets to drag the ocean bottom without getting caught) and "tickler chains" (which scared cod out of their hiding spots) were also developed.

• These boom times came on the heels of more efficient freezer technology which opened up whole new markets for fish.
• In 1925 an American entrepreneur named Clarence Birdseye perfected his mechanized freezing technology, which marked the beginning of the frozen foods industry.
• As a result, the demand for salt cod plummeted.

• By 1958 Newfoundland annual export of salt cod had dropped to about a quarter of the amount in 1919. At the same time the annual export of frozen fish filets rocketed to 27 million kg.
• As this clip shows, another change at the time was the introduction of the "delicacy" called the fish stick in 1952. With demand for salt cod dropping in North America, the deep-fried fish fillet became a huge commercial success.

• At the time, U.S. fish company Gorton's praised the fish stick as "the latest, greatest achievement of the seafood industry today," adding that "thanks to fish sticks the average American homemaker no longer considers serving fish a drudgery."
• The production of fish sticks more than tripled in the 1960s, sparking a huge boom in demand for all types of frozen fillets, including cod, haddock and pollock.



Fished Out: The Rise and Fall of the Cod Fishery more