The Norse had explored and wintered in North America some 500 years before Giovanni Caboto, a Genoese explorer whom the British called John Cabot, rediscovered the land in 1497. Although Cabot failed to find a northern route to the rich spice trade in Asia, he returned with tales of an ocean teeming with cod and gave Europeans a reason to turn their attention to the North Atlantic. Cabot had discovered the series of submarine plateaus, called banks, that rise from the continental shelf off Canada’s east coast, and are an important spawning and breeding ground for a variety of fish. The Gadus Morhua, better known as the Atlantic cod, has for centuries been the most important species. Though the cod and the beaver attracted international attention as valuable resources at roughly the same time, the cod never achieved the honoured status of the beaver as a national symbol. Nevertheless, the lowly cod played an important role in the expansion of Europe, led to the exploration and settlement of Canada and, until recently, provided a major source of protein.
It was Portugal and not England that first took a keen interest in the fishery off Newfoundland. Spain and France soon joined in the annual voyages to the New World for cod; by 1550, more than 400 ships and 12,000 fishers came annually to fish. The first fishers came ashore just for water and firewood, but two different methods of obtaining the fish eventually emerged: an inshore fishery where the fish were taken in small boats very close to the shore, and an offshore or bank fishery, where the fish were caught in distant waters. There were also two ways of preserving the catch to return it to Europe in an edible state: the wet or green salted fishery and the dry cure. All fishing was migratory, with fishers arriving early in the year and returning at the end of the season. Salting and drying remained the only way of preserving cod until icing and refrigeration became widespread in the 20th century.
The fishing industry played an important role in the early modern European economy as cod, high in protein and easily preserved, soon replaced herring and salmon as the staple fish. Religious doctrine forbidding the consumption of meat on Fridays and Holy Days further increased the demand for cod throughout Catholic Europe. Dried cod also became an important staple for sailors and the increasingly large and mobile armies of the European Great Powers. And, the fishery provided an ideal training ground for the navies of the period. Not surprisingly, as cod became a strategic national resource, the power struggles of Europe soon carried over into the North American fishery. The British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch often clashed over fishing rights in the waters that would later be called Canadian. War became a common feature of the New World fishery.
By the beginning of the 17th century, Britain and France had emerged as the dominant players in the international fishery off the east coast of North America. Though Spain and Portugal had been largely driven from the area by the British navy, fishers from New England soon ventured to the waters around Canada. In 1713, France was forced to remove its settlers from Newfoundland when it recognized the English claim to the island. Its fishers, however, retained the right to catch and dry fish on the west and north coasts of Newfoundland, an area that became known as the Treaty or French Shore. The fishery was paramount in the Seven Years War (1756-63) when France and England fought for control of North America. When Duc de Choiseul, the French foreign minister, offered to surrender Canada to the British in 1761, he refused to cede French rights to the Newfoundland fishery. The British Prime Minister, William Pitt, was determined to end France’s privileges in the fishery, even telling Parliament that he would rather lose his right arm than allow France continued participation in the fishery. Choiseul countered that he would rather be stoned in the streets of Paris than surrender France’s North American fishery rights. When peace came in 1763, France surrendered its North American possessions, including Canada and Cape Breton, without any sense of “grevious loss,” but retained its right to catch and dry fish in northern Newfoundland. It also acquired the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon as shelter for its bank fleet. France continues to retain certain fishing privileges in Canadian waters as had the United States for much of the 20th century.