01/Early document showing whale and bear hunting along the Greenland coast
Source: Hand-coloured engraving, 1790, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2898001
Before Jacques Cartier's first voyage in 1534, Basque whale hunters would visit the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the 16th century, Red Bay in Labrador was among the top whale-hunting sites in the world.
Source: Hand-coloured print, circa 1780, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2897975
Whales were hunted with harpoons. This was extremely dangerous because the injured whale would sound, or dive for the bottom, often hitting the boat with its tail. The hunters could be thrown into the water to drown.
03/Butchering a whale
Source: Hand-coloured print, circa 1850, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2837978
Sometimes whale carcasses would be hauled to the shore for processing. Strips of skin and blubber were peeled from the carcass. The blubber was then boiled to render it into whale oil, which was used for lighting and to lubricate machinery.
04/Depiction of the North Atlantic whale fishery in the 18th century
Source: Engraving with watercolour, circa 1770, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2837869
In the early 19th century, Gaspé Bay was very active as a whaling port. It produced over 16 million litres of whale oil each year. At the start of the 20th century, whale oil was replaced by much cheaper kerosene. Due to intensive hunting from the 16th to the 20th century, whales nearly vanished from the gulf and estuary. The Canadian government therefore resolved to ban whale hunting in 1972.
05/Commercial fishing boats moored at a wharf in Sept-Îles
In the 16th century, Basque, Breton, French, English, Spanish and Portuguese crews fished for cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Cod was prized because it could keep for many months after being salted or dried. Cod was line fished for over 400 years, until trawlers were introduced in the 20th century. These boats could collect large numbers of fish by dragging a funnel-shaped net along behind them. Overfishing caused cod stocks to collapse, and the Canadian government had to ban commercial cod fishing in the gulf in 1993.
06/Crab fishing boats at Les Escoumins on the North Shore
Source: Stratégies Saint-Laurent
There are major commercial crab, lobster and shrimp fisheries on the St. Lawrence. These crustaceans are mainly sold on the Asian, European and American markets.
07/Commercial fishing boat in Rivière-au-Renard on the Gaspé Peninsula
Source: Stéphane Miller, Stratégies Saint-Laurent
Herring, capelin, halibut and mackerel are among the species fished commercially in salt water.
08/Two trawlers used for shrimp fishing, one modern and one older, Sept-Îles region
10/Lobster traps near the Pointe-Sud-Ouest lighthouse on Anticosti Island.
Source: Patrick Matte
Lobsters are caught using a cage-like device called a lobster trap.
11/Lobster traps near the Île-d'Entrée lighthouse in the Magdalen Islands
Source: Patrick Matte
12/A fish smokehouse and two barns on Île Verte
Source: Patrick Matte
Certain fish can be smoked to preserve them for longer.
13/Fishing launch loaded with fish in Baie de Brador on the North Shore
Source: A. Pérot, Stratégies Saint-Laurent
14/Eel trap at low tide
Source: Josette Lalande, Stratégies Saint-Laurent
Under the French Regime, commercial eel fishing was very popular. The tradition continued in the St. Lawrence Estuary until modern times. Fishermen place nets that guide eels into traps when the tide is high. At low tide, the eels are collected from the traps. In the mid-1980s, the commercial catch began to decline. American eel populations have fallen steeply because dams on the St. Lawrence, like the Moses-Saunders dam in Cornwall and the Beauharnois dam, prevent juveniles from migrating to the Great Lakes. Many adult eels are also killed in the turbines of these dams.
Source: Paul Messier, Société d'aménagement de la Baie Lavallière
Until the early 2000s, Lake Saint-Pierre supported the river's largest commercial fishery in fresh water. Since the 19th century, hoop nets had been used to catch fish, mainly yellow perch. In 1995, a major decline in yellow perch numbers was observed. Although the Quebec government imposed restrictions on the fishery, it was unable to slow the collapse. It then began to buy back commercial fishing licences, reducing their number from 42 licences in 2002 to 6 in 2008. Researchers believe the population decline is mainly caused by wetland degradation. Juvenile yellow perch feed in aquatic vegetation beds, which are also on the decline in Lake Saint-Pierre. This means the juveniles are unable to find sufficient food to grow large enough to survive their first winter. The population therefore cannot replace itself.