Atlantic Fishing Methods

Handlining and Jigging

Handlining and jigging are two of the oldest forms of fishing and are still common, single-line methods used by many inshore fishermen on the Atlantic coast. Handlining utilizes a line to which a weight and baited hook is attached. Jigging operations involve the use of lure-like hooks attached to a line which is "jigged" or moved up and down in a series of short movements in the water at a level where fish are present. The motion attracts the fish, which are hooked as they move close to the lure. The line is then hauled onboard and the fish removed. In some cases, fishermen use manual jigging reels which reduce the labour involved in the process. Handlining and jigging are primarily used to catch groundfish, although pelagics, squid and other species are sometimes caught.

Jigging Machines

Jigging machines have recently become a popular from of fishing for groundfish and squid. These machines work on the same principle as jigging by hand but are made less labour intensive by the use of electric or hydraulic motors which automatically move the line up and down in a jigging motion and retrieve the line when fish are hooked.


Longlining, as the name implies, involves the use of a "long line" with a series of baited hooks spread along the ocean floor. Initially retrieved manually, this system has now become mechanized and uses automatic hauling, baiting and shooting machines. These improvements have made longlining an increasingly popular form of fishing. Fishermen are able to fish more gear, and in many other ways can compete with other forms of fishing. They can be more selective, landing a higher quality of fish, and also require less fuel for the operation. Longlining is used primarily in the Atlantic provinces to catch groundfish such as cod, hake, haddock and halibut.

The Newfoundland Longline Fishery

Longline gear has been used for centuries in Newfoundland and Labrador with little or no change. A modern fishery, however, demands ever greater operating efficiency.


Quality by Hook and Line

The emphasis in today's cod fishery is on quality. It is generally recognized that cod taken by hook and line are a basis for production of premium fish. From the late 1400's until the mid 1800's hook and line was the predominant fishery in Newfoundland. The cod trap was invented in 1865 and from then until the late 1950's, these two methods were the mainstay of the Newfoundland fishery. The basic hook and line fishery changed little over the years. Eventually, sail and oars were replaced by motors. In the early 1950's the development of the "longliner", capable of fishing further offshore and equipped with mechanical hauling devices, resulted in the greatest change in the longline fishery. Variations of these boats are the mainstay of today's fishing fleet.

By the 1960's, a decline in cod stocks and the introduction of synthetic gillnets capable of taking other groundfish species as well as cod, resulted in a move away from the hook and line fishery. Gillnets produced more fish for less effort, and the trend away from the hook and line spread over much of the province, with the exception of the southwest coast. Despite problems with product quality, increasing costs, and concern over conservation of fish stocks (ghost fishing), gillnets remained the most commonly used fishing gear in Newfoundland and Labrador throughout the sixties and into the eighties.

Modern Developments

In the early 1970's, the Fisheries Development Branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, recognizing major problems in the gillnet fishery, began to look for alternative fishing methods. It was felt that if a mechanical means of baiting hooks could be developed, fishermen would be interested in returning to the hook and line fishery. It was hoped that this would reduce harvesting costs and increase the quality and value of fish landed.

In 1974, two 120-foot former Scandinavian purse seiners and one 58' Newfoundland longliner were rigged with early versions of the Mustad autoline system. Fishing results were encouraging but the systems needed further refinements to make them acceptable for use in the Newfoundland fishery.

In 1978, the 124-foot Norwegian vessel "SYNSRAND", equipped with an improved system, was chartered for September and October. The boat completed four ten-day fishing trips, and on one trip over 200,000 lbs. of cod were landed. Eleven Newfoundland fishermen worked aboard the "SYNSRAND" as observers, all of them were impressed by the Mustad System.

The "Mustad" Autoline System

Over the past 20 years, O. Mustad and Son Ltd. has developed and perfected this system. The system uses a normal line hauler. The returning lines and hooks pass through a machine, which removes any bait still present. Then the lines cross the deck in a guide tube, which protects the crew from loose hooks. Next the lines enter a twist remover, which unravels the snoods from the ground line. A separator separates the hooks from the ground line and guides and positions each hook onto a magazine. Damaged gear is inspected and repaired by crew members. The lines are then ready for shooting. With the vessel moving ahead at speeds of up to ten knots, the high-flyer and buoy line, which are attached to the ground line, are launched. The resistance of the buoy and rope in the water pulls the hooks through the baiting machine. The baiting machine operator feeds uncut bait (usually mackerel or squid) into the baiter. Each hook activates the baiting machine, which cuts the bait to uniform size and holds each piece in position until the hook is double baited.

In 1979, the M/V's "HARMON 1" and "HARMON 11" were rigged with the Mustad system. Although the first year of operation was poor, catches improved in 1980 and they had a good year in 1981.

In 1980, the Fisheries Development Branch purchased a 15,000-hook Mustad system and installed it in a 3 metre by 4 metre aluminum container. The containerized system can be placed on, or taken off a boat in 24 hours, giving fishermen the versatility, important in our fishery. The system was placed aboard the 58-foot Newfoundland longliner "GARY MICHAEL". After 3 years using the system, Skipper Andrew Hann is very pleased with both the Mustad autoline system and the fact that with the containerized approach, he can switch from longlining to purse seining quickly and his crew can work in safer, more comfortable conditions.

Despite the proven operating efficiency and effectiveness of the Mustad system, it is not widely used in the Newfoundland fishery. The major reason appears to be that the system is expensive and difficult to justify given the seasonal nature of the inshore fishery.

Random Baiters

A simpler approach to the hand baiting problem was developed by three Newfoundland fishermen from Fogo Island. The Gill brothers felt that if they could bait effectively, they could continue to longline in the traditional way. They experimented and developed a simple random baiter which was less expensive than either the selective Mustad baiter or existing random baiters developed outside of Newfoundland.

The Gill baiter was the prototype for a number of random baiters developed in Newfoundland. The C & W Baiter System, the Burry Easy Slide System, and the Bruce Baiter System are examples of variations of the random baiting concept as developed by the Gill brothers. Operation of the random baiter is very simple. The ground line and hooks are passed through a hopper that is filled with bait. As the hooks move through the hopper they snag pieces of bait and proceed through an exit tube into the water. The bait is placed into the hopper from the top and gravity applies enough pressure to ensure that the hooks snag the bait. The ground line and snoods are prepared for baiting in racks or trays. The hooks and line are pulled through the baiter by the drag created by the high-flyer and anchor buoy, and the steaming of the boat.


In the last few years random baiters have been used with limited success throughout Newfoundland, but many fishermen feel that the failure of the system to duplicate the double-baited technique of hand baiting is a serious drawback. To overcome this obstacle, the Fisheries Development Branch has been working with a design group to produce a mechanical gang baiter which would not only bait efficiently and quickly, but also reproduce the double-baited technique of hand baiting, be affordable to hook and line fishermen and withstand the rigors of longline operations throughout the region. Designing a machine to bait a hook as well as the human hand can do it proved difficult but not impossible.

The result of design experiments was a longline system consisting of a mechanical baiter, hook racks, modified hooks and storage boxes. The loaded hook racks, attached to the storage box, which houses the main line and snoods, is put in place on the baiting machine. Uncut bait (squid, mackeral, herring) is laid in place on the baiting head under the rows of hooks. Turning the rotating arm of the baiter rotates the bait up and over onto the hook in such a way that the hooks pass through the bait twice, double baiting each hook. A set of cutters is then moved across the bait, slicing it into individual pieces on the hooks. Half the hooks on the rack are now baited. Next the rack is removed, rotated horizontally through 180 degrees and replaced, and the process is repeated, baiting the rest of the hooks.

The present racks hold 300 modified hooks and the machine baits 150 hooks at a time. The baited hooks, racks and storage boxes are taken aboard the longliner and readied for setting. As the line is hauled, the fish are removed and the hooks are checked, cleaned and replaced in the rack, ready to be re-baited. The system can be used as a shore set-up shared by a number of fishermen, or as an onboard operation.


The hook and line fishery produces a top quality, high value product. The Fisheries Development Branch of Department of Fisheries and Oceans feels that it is advisable to increase use of longlines and has put considerable effort into developing the technology required to make this type of fishery viable.


Gillnets are used on the Atlantic coast to catch many species of fish, especially groundfish and pelagics and such anadromous species as salmon, smelt and gaspereau. They are constructed principally of monofilament netting and may be either secured to the bottom of the sea with the use of weights or left to drift. Fish are caught as they attempt to swim through the webbing, entangling their gills.

Nets which are anchored to the seabed to keep the gear stationary have buoys on each end which float on the surface. These buoys indicate the location and ownership of the gear and provide a line from which the gear can be raised to the surface to harvest the catch.

The nets may be positioned in varying water depths, depending on the location of the species. It is common for fishermen to join a number of nets together to increase the efficiency of the operation.

The size of the mesh used in gillnets may differ, depending on the species and size of the fish sought.


Weir Fishing

The weir method of fishing is used in the Bay of Fundy and its approaches, where the extraordinary height of the tides prevents the use of other traps. Weirs are also used on both sides of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.

Rigid poles are driven into the mud bottom in a heart-shaped configuration. A straight line of poles is then placed from the shoreline to the weir. This line acts as a barrier to the fish, which follow it into the weir. Once inside, they become disoriented and swim in circles. To remove the catch, fishermen place a purse seine inside the weir. The seine is pursed and gradually made smaller; the fish are then either pumped or brailed (scooped out with a special dip net) from the weir into a boat.

Purse Seining

A seine is a wall of webbing used to encircle fish. It is the encircling action, rather than towing, which is responsible for its catching power. As with a gillnet, the purse seine has floats on the top and weights on the bottom to keep it vertical in the water. A purse seine, however, has a wire rope passing through rings on the bottom of the net which enables the net to be drawn together to entrap fish. While purse seines are used to catch many species of fish, they are most effective when used to capture fish schooling near the ocean bottom.

When a school of fish is detected, one end of the seine is taken by a small boat or "skiff". The vessel and skiff then encircle the fish with the net. After receiving the end of the line from the skiff, the vessel begins to winch in the wire cable, closing the bottom of the seine and forming a bag-like net around the fish. The other lines are now also winched in, reducing the space inside the net which is then brought alongside the vessel. The fish are dipped out and put in penned-off sections, boxes, or in the hold of the vessel.

Danish/Scottish Seining

Danish/Scotish seining methods are used to catch species of groundfish such as flounder and cod. Both methods use similar nets and series of ropes spread out in a pear-shaped form along the ocean floor. The action of the ropes stirs up a mud cloud and herds the fish into the path of the net. In Danish seining, the vessel remains in a fixed position while the gear is hauled along the bottom. In Scotish seining, the net and ropes are towed along the ocean floor while they are closing. This is sometimes referred to as "fly-dragging".

Canadian Pair Seining

Canadian pair seining is a recently developed method of fishing used by relatively few fishermen. It is similar to Scottish seining but utilizes two vessels in the operation. The vessels sweep an area of smooth seabed with cables and ropes, corralling fish into a net, and winching the net in. The net resembles an otter trawl net except that the vertical opening is much wider. It is set and hauled by the two vessels, which maintain coordinated positions through regular radio contact. This method of catching groundfish species such as cod, flounder and silver hake is used by the smaller inshore vessels - 11-14 metres (35-45 feet) - because of the limited towing power required. The operation's success of the "warps" or cables. When the two vessels come together, the cables are brought together and the net is winched in from both boats.

Otter Trawling

Otter trawls are cone-shaped nets which are towed along the ocean bottom to catch many species of groundfish. They take their name from the rectangular "doors" or "otterboards" that are attached to cables between the boat and the net. These doors serve to keep the mouth of the net horizontally open while the net is making its tow. A vertical opening is maintained by weights on the bottom and floats on the top and the water pressure generated from towing. The net traps fish in the end of the bag-like section or "cod-end", which has a mesh size that permits only the smaller fish to escape. The net rolls along close to the bottom with the aid of bobbins, which are similar in appearance to wheels.

After a period of towing, the trawl is winched up beside the vessel. In a side trawling operation the cod-end is raised and suspended over the vessel. The cod-end is untied, and the catch released onto the vessel's decks, where the fish are bled, gutted and stored in the hold. In a stern trawling operation the gear is hauled up the "stern ramp" and the cod-end opened.

Atlantic Side Trawling

Atlantic side trawlers are members of the older series of groundfish trawlers which are declining in numbers due to the preference for more modern stern trawlers.

They are referred to as side trawlers since the gear (trawl) is towed from gallows fixed on one side of the vessel. Atlantic side trawlers are primarily between 19.8 and 30.48 metres (65 - 100 feet) in length and are of wooden construction.

Stern Trawling

Stern trawlers are the main components of Canada's Atlantic offshore fishing fleet and are modern vessels of steel construction, averaging in size from 30.48-45.72 metres (100-150 feet). The gear (trawl) is hauled into the vessel over a large ramp through an opening at the back or "stern" of the ship. Stern trawlers can operate in almost any waters or weather conditions and often range as far as 300 nautical miles off the Canadian east coast, fishing at depths of up to 250 fathoms. These vessels can carry up to 600,000 pounds of fish within their holds. They carry a crew of about 15 and can fish for ten days to two weeks each trip. Atlantic stern trawlers harvest traditional groundfish species such as cod, haddock, flounder and hake.

Cod Traps

Cod trap fishing is somewhat similar to weir fishing and is primarily used in Newfoundland. The traps resemble open-topped box nets, measuring 11-22 metres around the perimeter, with a vertical opening or "door" to one side. The trap is set on the ocean bottom, usually close to the shore, with the door facing shallow water. It is buoyed on the top and anchored on each corner to maintain its position. A long net fence or "leader" extends from shallow water into the mouth of the trap. When the cod, feeding on fish such as capelin along the seashore, confront the leader, they instinctively shift direction, swimming through the open doors into the trap. Once inside, they tend to swim in circles, trying to avoid the leader, as so fail to locate the doors.

Fishermen then close the doors and bring the trap to the surface, hauling it across the boat. The fish are concentrated in one corner of the trap and collected with a dip net. One cod trap vessel may tend up to four or five traps, although three or four are more common.

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