Northern Labrador: The Forgotten People

A few generations ago, as the population of Newfoundland grew, there wasn’t enough fish to sustain us all, so we started building schooners, not only to fish the Grand Banks, but to migrate further north.

We moved north to a thousand miles of coastline with sparsely populated communities on the Labrador Coast for the rich catches of cod and salmon. Many built fishing rooms called stations where they would return with their families every year, shipping their fish back to the Island each fall. My grandfather, Edgar Rice, fished out of Lance au Pigeon on Quirpon Island.

The schooners would come from all over the northeast Coast and as far away as Renews. They started fishing at Belle Isle and as far north as Cape Chidley depending on the availability of cod, which was a cod trap fishery after the capelin had left and they finished up their voyage with jiggers if necessary.

There are many well-known names in Labrador where fishing communities were set up, including Battle Harbour, Bateau, Indian Tickle, Spotted Island, Domino, Smokey and Cape Harrison, to name a few.

Max Burry from Clarenville had a fishing premises with six to seven families in Iron Bound Island, 10 miles south of Makkovik.

The Bartlett family (Capt. Bob) had a fishing premise in Turnivek Harbour, off Cape Makkovik, in the early 1900s. In 1925, Bob fished that area on the famous schooner, Effie M. Morrissey. I had the pleasure of anchoring there one night, tied up to the ring bolts, inserted in the cliffs by the Bartlett family years ago.

After 23 years in Deer Lake, in 1976 I returned to the fishery and bought a 60-foot longliner that I named the Nancy Bartlett, after my first granddaughter. As the fish got scarcer, I, like my forefathers, started fishing further from home out of necessity, fishing off Belle Isle, Hawkes Harbour, Black Tickle and Cape Harrison.

In 1981, I ended up in Makkovik and fished there until the fishery failed in 1989. When fish got scarce in that area, we would fish north of Makkovik, at the railroads of Hopedale, Solomen Islands, David Island around Nain and Cape Mugford.

The following is a letter I received from my friend in Makkovik, Barry Anderson. I was shocked to learn that things had not improved in 32 years.


Hi Wilf,

As you know, the cod fishery failed here in 1989, three years prior to the moratorium being declared. Thus, many of the local fishers here had to fight for TAGS at the time as they had no landings for 1991, as was the requirement to qualify at the time. Our new fish plant was opened in 1990. To this day, that plant has never seen a cod.

When I was a child here growing up, the capelin would come ashore like clockwork at the last week of June, regardless if the ice was in the bay. And then in mid-July, the “outside capelin” we called them would come in. That would be cod trap time up here.

I remember throwing moss on the old harps’ backs when they came in the beach at the capelin. The bay would be full of harps and bedlamers right up to head of Makkovik Bay at the Goose Grass. Huge schools of them all over the bay. We would net them for sale and making boots.

In the last 20 years or so, we never see any numbers of harps here. One or two here and there. Why, because there is no bait left up here. There are no capelin in our bays. This past summer, we got a feed of capelin from Postville — a couple frying pans full. A small bit came ashore at Sandy Point just west of the community. It was the talk of the two communities if you can believe that.

The only place we can get a few cod, little rounders today, is at Iron Bounds in late August and September. So small you need three for brewis if you are lucky enough to catch a few.

It is like there is a curtain blocking them after you leave Black Tickle. Nothing at Indian Tickle a few miles up towards Cartwright.

As you are aware, if there are no capelin then there are no cod. Off here, the Hamilton Banks, was the cod nursery. I believe this habitat is destroyed by all the dragging over the years.

 Back in the 1980s, we saw the cod fail north of here at Cutthroat, then Nain, then around here and onward south to 1992 on the island and we know the story from there.

The bottom line is the capelin, the mainstay of the food chain. No capelin means no fish up here.

My opinion and many others here.

Stay safe.


Barry Anderson

As Barry stated in his letter, the fishery around Nain failed in the mid 1980s and worked its way south, until in 1989 you couldn’t get one to eat in Makkovik.

This was once the best fishing grounds in the province before the 1960s, then the foreign, ice-strengthened factory trawlers discovered the rich cod spawning grounds on the Hamilton Banks. These banks supplied the cod for Labrador, as well as the northeast coast of Newfoundland and was protected by the ice during the spawning season.

In 1968, 1,220,000 tonnes of cod were taken by the foreign fleets in the 2J3KL NAFO zones. For a period, the Labrador cod was non-existent, but did rebound somewhat in the late 70s and early 80s, but later became a barren desert and have remained so for 32 years, from Black Tickle to Cape Chidley. And the Canadian Government does not give a damn.

I remember talking to Capt. Jim Short in the late 80s, who used to fish in Labrador, telling him how bad it was up there. He said “if the Labrador fishery fails, then she’s gone.” How true were his words.

I was the last longliner to fish out of Makkovik from the island. I was so sad, but little did I know that I had caught the last fish.

After the moratorium in 1992, the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association called for an inquiry into the destruction of the Northern cod stock. After 29 years with the state of 3PS cod stocks near extinction, capelin, mackerel, salmon and the Northern cod is not improving. An inquiry would highlight the cause and hopefully try to find a cure. At the present time, our governments are doing nothing.

I will leave you with this February 13, 1974 quote by then Premier Frank Moores, “If we don’t protect our special Newfoundland way of life we will wake up one day and discover we have lost the heritage our fathers gave us.”


Wilfred Bartlett

Green Bay South


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