From Muscles to Motors: Change in the Fishing Fleet
The development of new technologies, power sources and materials had significant effects on commercial fishing.Between 1900 and 1960, new technologies, power sources and materials were introduced. Each helped boats and fishermen work faster and catch more fish with less effort. While the basic fishing methods of gillnetting, purse seining, trolling, long lining, trawling and trapping, changed very little, each new technology meant fish boats could work faster and catch more fish with less effort and smaller crews.
Gasoline engines revolutionized fishing in 1900. Engines allowed fishermen to go further from shore, set nets more often and catch more fish than ever before. By 1918, engines led to powered winches and gurdies. These made trolling a quicker, more productive fishing method. By 1931, engines made possible the powered gillnet drum. This ingenious tool meant that engine power, not human muscle, could haul in heavy, wet, fish-filled gillnets.
Following World War II, artificial materials such as nylon and plastic changed fishing gear for the better. It became stronger, lighter and more durable than the linen, cotton and cork it replaced. Important electronics were also introduced which changed the way fishermen found fish. By 1960, fishermen could safely travel farther and find fish easier using electronics such as sonar, radar, automatic pilots, direction finders and two-way radiotelephones.
Hydraulics proved to be another valuable innovation for the fishing fleet. During the 1950s, hydraulically powered seine drums and power blocks were introduced to haul in large, heavy purse seine nets. By the 1960s, purse seine fishermen no longer faced the backbreaking work of pulling in huge, fish-laden nets by hand.
Musqueam First Nation gillnetter Edward Sparrow, Sr. tells this story about being one of the first on the Fraser River to adopt the new technology:
"I think it was 1932, 34 when I put on my first drum... Much easier. You didn't even have to pull the nets. The drum pulls it in for you. You had a lever at your foot. When the fish gets in, well you take your foot off the clutch, then take out the fish and step on, and away you go again. No more hard work... One of my in-laws from Ladner and I were the first ones to put on the drums in Steveston... [Other fishermen would say,] Well what's the matter, are you a sissy? Don't you want to work hard no more? I says no. I says got to try something... Not too long everyone had drums on, they never made fun of nobody no more."