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Paul Sparkes: To wit — a barrel of herring

A view of Bay of Islands, Newfoundland, c. 1910. The business of selling bait-fish to New England fishing vessels visiting here had to be conducted according to the letter of the (Newfoundland) law.
A view of Bay of Islands, Newfoundland, c. 1910. The business of selling bait-fish to New England fishing vessels visiting here had to be conducted according to the letter of the (Newfoundland) law.

In the middle of November 1906 at 10:30 in the morning Alexander Dubois and George Crane were summoned before Magistrate Levi March at Bay of Islands to answer to the charge of breaching Newfoundland’s Bait Act.

As Commissioner in that region, Joseph O’Reilly, J.P., was the plaintiff — the man who advanced Newfoundland’s case. The defendants had lawyers but witnesses clearly told the magistrate that they had seen the two Wood’s Island men placing herring (a bait fish) aboard the American schooner Ralph L. Hall.

And, woe to them for it seems to have been well known by witnesses that the two did not hold vendors’ licences. And that was essential under Newfoundland law at the time.

Mind you, we are talking about three tubs of herring. But the law stood to keep our fishermen in line and to protect our fisheries. It also protected the fishermen themselves by putting a bottom on the price that Americans must pay for bait-fish here and stipulating that the Americans tubs, into which our men would dump their herring, had to be of a regulation size.

The defendants argued that they had gone outside the three-mile limit and shipped with Captain Hall of the Ralph L. Hall. It was therefore argued that they were not under Newfoundland jurisdiction, or, particularly, this court.

Not so, according to witness Timothy Costello. He told the court that he watched (from the deck of the Fiona, the Newfoundland Government ship actually in Bay of Islands) on the morning of Nov. 12 as the two defendants rowed out to the American schooner and off-loaded two tubs “and part of another tub.” This, Costello declared, was only about one-and-a-quarter miles offshore.

Another witness, James Collins, a waiter on board the Fiona, said that he knew Dubois and Crane: “The defendants were in their dory rowing towards the schooner Ralph L. Hall. They went on board, one man remaining in the dory, the other got on the deck; they put on board three (3) tubs. I saw the herring.”

Collins told the court that he had been ordered at that time to be on watch, “to see if any men would put herring on board the schooner ... we were all of us looking at the defendants putting herring on board the schooner ... I am paid by the Newfoundland government for my services.”

From this distance in time, it all seems much ado about nothing. But clearly it wasn’t for Dubois and Crane were fined $500 each or three months in jail at Bay of Islands.

Think about it: $500 in 1906 is the equivalent today of $13,500. The lawyer for the defendants said he would appeal. By the way, Crane and Dubois were to receive $1 per barrel from the Americans for the herring (well under the Newfoundland Government’s bottom limit).

Hard to imagine that because they were not licensed to sell, the two miscreants could have come up with $500 each. And they lost their appeal.

The traditional practice in Newfoundland for some years was for New England vessels to come here and to buy bait-fish from our inshore men. They would then go about their fishing here. At about the time of the Dubois and Crane case, it was required of foreign buyers here that they have a Newfoundland licence (issued without charge); our sellers needed a seller’s licence (not free, I believe).

Buyers were under the obligation to accept all herring, large and small. This rule resulted from ridiculously low prices being paid for bait-fish and our fishermen dumping small herring as uneconomic for them. It was a no-win scenario. Buyers were also required to measure by a Newfoundland tub-size because our fishermen had complained about the oversized tubs provided by the Americans.

Add to all this, the herring stocks in our bays were suffering from, let’s say, a lack of TLC.

Feeling that they were tangled up in Newfoundland rules and hit up for dollars at every turn, the Americans became spiteful. For two seasons the Americans tried to catch the bait-fish they needed here and additionally to pursue the fishery. It was too much. They tried to hire on Newfoundlanders but “shipping” our people aboard was also a contravention of our law. Our Yankee friends soon saw that they had to pony up and pay a fair price. Dubois and Crane were not helping the united effort.

Some witness fishermen included more in their depositions than, surely, the court needed. From the appeal hearing, one Joseph Parks of Brake Cove, Middle Arm, Bay of Islands declared under oath:

“There have been settlements in Middle Arm ever since I can remember, and in addition to houses there were shacks, camps and fishing stations all around the Arm, both in Goose Arm and Penguin Arm. The fishermen lived in these shacks and camps, and fished herring and sold them to American vessels, Canadian vessels or to any persons that would buy from them ...

“Like other fishermen I often lost my nets and gear through ice and storms, and the loss fell on myself, and at my own expense, I had to obtain new nets and gear. Owing to the heavy storms and ice that prevail in this bay during the late fall and winter, the cost of catching herring is very heavy.”

’Twas hard,hard times.


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:


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