For the Prince Edward Island fisheries, the years between the end of World War One in 1918 and the beginning of World War Two in 1939 were years of hardship. The oyster fishery was almost completely destroyed by the mysterious Malpeque disease which first struck in 1915, and it would be years before the oyster population would recover.1 The lobster fishery, which dominated the industry, was slow to take advantage of new refrigeration technology to export live and frozen lobsters, while the canning industry continued to suffer from poor quality control, and increased competition for markets from Japanese crab meat.2 The situation was only starting to look better when the Great Depression struck in 1929.
The Great Depression
The Depression severely battered the Island fisheries. Lobster prices dropped by nearly 60 percent and what oysters remained also fell in value. Other species were also hit hard. Cod prices were reduced by half, herring prices by two thirds, and mackerel fell in price by nearly 70 percent.3 To make matters worse, there were more fishermen trying to make a living from the smaller industry. Many Islanders working in factories on the mainland were laid off during the Depression, and they came back home to PEI to make a living at what they knew best--fishing.4 An increasing number of fishermen were now trying to take a slice of the decreasing Island fisheries pie.
Some fishermen turned to illicit activities such as transporting bootleg alcohol to the Island, which was under Prohibition at the time.5 However, by the late 1930's the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) was cracking down on such activities. During the Depression, many fishing families lived on subsistence diets despite efforts by the provincial Department of Agriculture to promote community gardens to supplement the fisherman's diet. At the best of times, the fisherman's attitude towards gardening was indifferent. Fishermen were quoted as saying "fishing and farming don't mix."6 This attitude only made the Depression more difficult for the Island's fishermen and their families.
Second World War
The lean years of the Depression ended with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Many men enlisted in the armed forces and consequently the number of Island fishermen quickly dropped by nearly 20 percent between 1939 and 1940.7 Fish prices shot back up during the war, due the need of food for the war effort. New markets were even created, at least temporarily. The Island's hake and mackerel fishery experienced a sudden boom in the war years, as the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) purchased huge amounts of canned fish for victims of the war. The hake and mackerel fishery shrank at the end of the war, when the UNRRA ceased its purchases. However, for the most part, the Island fishery was back on its feet following the end of the War, and was much the same as it is today.
1. Wells, Kennedy. The Fishery of Prince Edward Island. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1986.