A Science on the Scale: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898-1939

By Payne, Brian J. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

A Science on the Scale: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898-1939


Payne, Brian J., American Review of Canadian Studies


Jennifer M. Hubbard. A Science on the Scale: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898-1939. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. x + 351 pp. $65.00 cloth.

Canada's Atlantic fishery has long been a topic of historical interest. Ever since Harold Innis's monumental study, however, scholars have often shaped their histories along economic constructs. Jennifer Hubbard takes a new look at the history of fishery management in Canada by examining the rise of fishery biology as an agent of political and administrative authority. Hubbard's central goal is to place fishery science within a proper historical context that understands how international trends, political agendas, economic motives, and individual personalities all combined to create a fishery Biological Board that was at once a reflection of the international scientific community and something that was uniquely Canadian. Certainly Canadian fishery scientists learned a lot from their Norwegian, English, and American counterparts, but the political and economic atmosphere within Canada shaped the Biological Board into a bureaucratic construct that often became bogged down in the murky world of Canadian politics.

Early in the work Hubbard states that "since fisheries science is ultimately an applied science, economic, environmental and political circumstances must be incorporated into any interpretation of its evolution and achievements" (4). Hubbard presents convincing historical evidence that Canadian fishery scientists cannot be so easily classified into opposing camps of applied versus basic (or pure) scientific researchers. Many histories of science focus on this dichotomy, but Hubbard does not see the history of Canadian fishery biology as so simply constructed, but instead argues that the real historical force behind the science was its close tie with industrial leaders and the upper levels of administration within the board's financial backer, the Ottawa-based Department of Marine and Fisheries. The main focus of this sector was to increase market demand and production in order to develop economic security in Atlantic Canada. For example, at the end of the work we see that while Thomas Henry Huxley's scientific theory of the inexhaustibility of ocean fish species did greatly influence Canadian fisheries scientists, it was in fact the close tie to industrial leaders and the government's desire to greatly increase productivity that facilitated the failure of 20th-century fishery scientists to accurately predict or even prepare for the collapse of the Atlantic fish stock. Thus, it was politics and economics, not science, that drove the agenda of Canadian fishery biology.

This is not to say that Canadians lacked objective scientific research in marine biology. Many notable names made significant contributions to the international scientific community, and Hubbard argues that the dual applied and basic research approaches enable Canadian fishery biologists to investigate the fisheries in an academic manner while maintaining concerns for the social welfare of the fishing community. Yet, Hubbard argues, the failure of Canadian fishery scientists to place market fish within the ecology of the ocean ultimately led to their failure to fully understand the dynamic of the ocean environment, stating early, "Ironically, although fisheries science should be well situated as an ecological, environmental science, the links between environmental ecology and fisheries biology became tenuous" (10). Here, perhaps, Hubbard goes too far with her critique of Canadian fishery scientists. Few fields of biology began to even investigate the theories of ecology much before the middle of the 20th century, and to expect fishery scientists to be out in front may be too much to ask. Fish were, for the most part, a commodity, very much like agricultural products, and fish science cannot be accurately compared with wildlife science, where ecology began, even if those fish were in fact wildlife. …

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