During the 16th century the Atlantic rim of what is now Canada was incorporated in the European economy as fishermen from many European ports came to catch and process cod. With them came fishing techniques worked out in the northeastern Atlantic during the middle ages, ships and navigational principles developed principally by Portuguese and Basques in the 15th century, and the organization of early-modern mercantile capitalism.
The European fishery had reached rocky, coniferous land with almost no agricultural potential. In spring and summer the Labrador current brought floe ice and icebergs offshore, new to European experience. But there were good and numerous harbours and cod in abundance in coastal waters and on the continental shelf.
The fishery drew thousands of men across the Atlantic each year. A well-tried technology, established channels of financing and marketing, and a growing demand for fish in the rapidly increasing European population underlay a trans-Atlantic rush to new resources. By the end of the 16th century most European ports from Cadiz to Bristol had participated in the New World fisheries. Early in the 17th century the governments of England and France authorized the establishment of permanent settlements in North America.
The maritime edge of northeastern North America began to participate in quite different economic realms: cod and a few furs were shipped to Europe while European trade goods entered native economies. Local natives suddenly faced European competition for summer fishing sites, while other natives - the Thule (Inuit) from northern Labrador, and perhaps the St Lawrence Iroquoians from the lower St Lawrence - made summer trading or raiding trips to obtain European goods from fishermen at the Strait of Belle Isle.
As native peoples sought more European durable goods, they spent more of the year trapping in the interior. The depletion of fur-bearing animals may have increased native warfare as bands sought to expand their hunting territories. Warfare, as well as the limited number of places where trade could be carried on regularly with Europeans, apparently encouraged the amalgamation of neighbouring bands and enhanced the position of chiefs who traded directly with Europeans. All the while European diseases were taking their toll.
This animated map shows the seasonal movement of Atlantic cod within its usual seaward limit, plus the direction and typical coverage of sea ice. The user can explore portions of the map by clicking to zoom in and out, and dragging to pan around it.
Learn more about the late 20th century fisheries in Atlantic Canada and in British Columbia