Newfoundland has a lot of towns with odd names. The week I spent on Fogo Island, I stayed in a town called Seldom-Come-By (a fitting name for a small town on an island only reached by ferry). Other names include Come-By-Chance and Happy Adventure. But I think Dildo takes the prize. Some sources I’ve found claim that the name has nothing to do with its current meaning – Wikipedia says that the word dildo initially referred to the pegs in a dory used to hold the oars in place (also called rowlocks), though I can’t say whether this is actually true. A few times, people from town have suggested changing the name to something more…child-friendly. But the name has stuck, and seems likely to stay – it may raise a few eyebrows, but the curiosity also seems to draw attention and tourists.
I was interested in learning about the hatchery largely because its presence and the historical records from its time raise questions about the possibilities of overfishing and worries about how to maintain a sustainable fish stock that most people today tend to consider only a modern concern. In talking about the depletion of the northern cod stock, many people tend to only look as far back as the beginning of industrial fishing in the mid-twentieth century. But nobody really knows what had changed before then – this group of scientists and historians, for instance, found that there had been significant depletions in the cod biomass on the Scotian Shelf in the 1850s, long before the advent of modern trawlers. And certainly, the fish were not so plentiful in the nineteenth century as when John Cabot first arrived in Newfoundland in 1497 and reported that even though he had not found spices, he had discovered a source of fish so plentiful they could be scooped up in buckets.
As it turns out, Newfoundland has experienced fish depletions in the nineteenth century that, while by no means as widespread as today, were enough to cause alarm for the fishermen living in isolated coastal areas who depended on the inshore migrations of cod for their livelihoods. It was enough of a concern that in 1887 that when the Newfoundland government heard a presentation by a Norwegian named Adolph Neilsen on “artificial propagation” of fish stocks, they invited him to move to the island to begin hatchery operations and provided $4000 (a large sum in those days) to build the facility.
Nielsen took a steamer trip through some of the east coast bays to look for a suitable spot for the hatchery and finally settled on Dildo Island. Although a fish hatching operation in the nineteenth century seems far ahead of its times, the methods Nielsen used for his hatchery were the product of methods that had been developed in Norway beginning in 1864. An experimental hatchery had been opened in the US at Ten Pound Island, near Gloucester, around 1878 and had later led to the development of a hatchery at Woods Hole that opened in 1885 and ran until the 1950s. Another experimental hatchery had been opened at Arendal, Norway in 1882, which was run until it was taken over by the government in 1918 and has since been used as a research facility (today it is the Institute of Marine Research’s Flodevigen Biological Station).
As it turned out, the Dildo Island hatchery did not run for so long as the others – mostly because public debate over whether the project was worth the cost to the government led the government to pull out funding when a new party came into power. Nielsen funded the operation of the hatchery for its last year in 1896, but then was forced to close the hatchery due to poor health and lack of money. Today, all that is left of the facility is a rusty pump, but luckily there are fairly extensive notes on the hatchery both from a few early pictures taken of the facility and illustrations from the report of a visit from a French delegation considering the potential for a hatchery in their colony of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.
Here you can see an aerial view of the hatchery on the island. You can see the holes cut into the wharf to use as holding tanks to keep both the large fish used to produce and fertilize the eggs and the small hatchery-raised fish just before releasing them into the bay.
This illustration shows the interior of the hatchery facility, with rows of water tight wooden boxes each containing cylindrical glass incubators where the fertilized cod eggs were hatched. By the last year the facility was running, 76% of the fertilized eggs survived to grow into the juvenile fish that would be released back into the bay – to my mind, quite an impressive success rate for nineteenth century technology.
The very presence of this hatchery and the debates over whether the hatchery was a worthwhile investment illustrate one of the major debates in fisheries science and management – namely, whether human influence was capable of affecting fish populations, whether through fishing out the stock or building it up with this sort of supplementary effort. Most people talking about attitudes towards fishing and the possibility of overfishing at the turn of the twentieth century cite Thomas Henry Huxley’s address at the London Fisheries Exhibition in 1883, in which he said, “I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case, to be useless.” In looking more closely at the rest of his speech, though, it seems that his argument is not such a unilateral statement as it seems, but rather a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation showing that the contemporary fishing methods were not catching enough to significantly add to what scientists today call “natural mortality.” Huxley also admits that local populations of sea fish, such as individual salmon rivers, can be fished out – and so it does not seem so unlikely that people at the time would also have seen that local bay stocks, such as those relied upon by Newfoundland’s inshore fishermen, could also be overfished.
Certainly this was Neilsen’s belief, as reported by the French delegation that visited the Dildo Island hatchery in 1894. They reflected on their own opinions of the usefulness of the operation: “‘Is artificial procreation useful?’ ‘Does the cod stock, plentiful off the coast of Newfoundland, tend to diminish by the very fact of overfishing which has been done?’ It is certain that if, as Huxley thinks, the stock is inexhaustible, the idea of harvesting a few million cod a year along a certain stretch of coast is something like a child every day carrying a little bit of water from the sea. For Mr. Nielsen it is undeniable that the cod supply is being exhausted, and if a future fishery is to be guaranteed, it is necessary, as soon as possible, to make up for the lost of each day.”
It is hard to say whether a hatchery operation such as Neilsen’s could significantly increase the overall population of a large stock such as northern cod, but for the local inshore fishermen in Trinity Bay it seemed to have improved their catches. A Norwegian article on the subject found that, “In various reports, one can see that the growth of young fish increased substantially in Trinity Bay. The oldest residents in the area confirmed that they had never seen so much fish as the years that the hatchery was in operation.” It is hard to say whether hatcheries such as this one could have averted the crisis in the fishing industry that today has devastated in the coastal communities of Newfoundland – as the French pointed out after their visit to Nielsen’s hatchery, even if such an operation would have helped keep good fishing in Trinity Bay, it would not have solved the problems of a declining fishery all around the coastal areas of the island. “Dildo is but a spot on the Newfoundland coast and, since other spots do not profit from this work of “restocking”, how can it be worked to their advantage? Will we be able to restock other places with the artificially-born cod from Dildo? It is possible. Must one establish in all bays a scientific industry like the one we have been viewing these days? That would be a huge enterprise and extremely costly, for uncertain results for which we would have to wait…. He [Nielsen] may have been able to set up a base for the prosperity of Dildo, but he has not yet resolved the more general problem: raising the confidence of the fishermen higher than it has ever been, to definitely guarantee the resources throughout all of the coast of Newfoundland if, as he has himself positively affirmed, the cod tend to become exhausted on this coast of Newfoundland, just as they continue to do in Norway.”
Today, though the hatchery is long gone (it was purchased by a local merchant, who took down the building and used it for construction elsewhere), but the (hi)story is still an important part of the community of Dildo – particularly since the cod fishing moratorium in 1992, which has lead the community to focus on opportunities to market its culture and history for tourists, not to mention prompting considerable reflection on the wisdom of Nielsen’s conservation mentality. I first heard about the hatchery from one of the men working at Hampidjan Canada, whose uncle Gerald has collected an incredible amount of historical information about the hatchery, including translating a number of old documents, putting together an interpretation center in Dildo about the history of the town and island and running boat tours out to the island to learn about the local history and environment.
There seems to be a sort of wistful attitude towards the hatchery, wondering about the “what-ifs” of the fishery – whether overfishing and the cod moratorium would have happened if they had followed Neilsen’s philosophy that Gerald described to me as “for every fish you take you should put one back.” It is interesting, however, that while many inshore fishing communities blame the inadequacies of science and the use of new fishing technologies (both the use of gill nets inshore and trawlers offshore) for the collapse of the fishery, Nielsen’s hatchery – using highly advanced technology for its time and the most modern science – as a potential savior of the fishery. In all likelihood, hatcheries like Nielsen’s wouldn’t have been enough to counterbalance the massive catches of offshore trawlers, but emphasis on local conservation – particularly if the government had remained involved in funding efforts at preserving local stocks – might have influenced people’s attitudes towards the potential problems of overfishing. History, it turns out, still has lessons worth paying attention to today.