All three coasts in Canada – east, west and north – have strong traditional fisheries. First Nations and Inuit peoples fished everything from shrimp to whales, while the first European settlers focused on Atlantic cod and other groundfish including halibut, haddock, and pollock.
The Atlantic economy was traditionally linked to fishing, shipbuilding, and trading, often based in small, widely spread rural areas. On the Pacific coast, salmon was the dominant catch, and fish harvesters established themselves in both rural areas and major centres such as Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, and Prince Rupert. West coast harvesters formed organizations more quickly than on the Atlantic, and therefore had greater influence on prices and regulations. West cost incomes quickly surpassed those on the Atlantic, and community development reflected this.
By the 1960s and 1970s, large-trawler companies dominated the Atlantic coast fishery. Factory freezer trawlers congregating outside the three-mile limit led to demands for a 200-mile limit, which sharply curtailed foreign fishing. Despite this, Atlantic groundfish stocks crashed in the early 1990s, apparently from overfishing and environmental factors.
In British Columbia in the 1990s, a combination of factors including fishing pressure, oceanic changes, and habitat degradation led to drastic drop in salmon catches. Government programs and policies nearly halved the Pacific fleet, and most of the major salmon canneries closed. Communities dependent on the canneries and other support industries to the fishery faced major economic decline.
Diversification and a more entrepreneurial, less industrial model grew out of the fishery decline.
On the Atlantic, the industry became better suited to the remaining resources: with fewer groundfish, shellfish became a more substantial catch. Some communities have incorporated more mechanized and technological methods of harvesting and processing, or transitioned partially or entirely to new economic base industries. Many coastal communities are well-positioned tourist destinations, or have attracted new businesses and community groups with restored and refurbished historic buildings which no longer serve their traditional use.