Written by Karen Turriff
Weir Fishing: An ancient technique of Canada’s aboriginal peoples used in the Metis area
A weir is a fish trap set in a riverbed or tidal zone of a bay or estuary. It consists of at least two parts: a fence-like structure designed to guide fish into the trap and the terminal enclosure from which fish cannot escape. In tidal zones, fish swim into the trap at high tide when the structure is almost covered by water. Water rushes out of the trap on the falling tide, stranding fish inside where they concentrate in a shallow holding pond at its centre. Fish are harvested from the trap with dip nets or spears, or simply held there for later use.
Traditionally built from saplings and branches of birch or alder, the weir is akin to a very large basket. Long upright poles are set into the sea- or riverbed, quite near to each other. These poles form the weir’s frame. They are woven together using smaller branches and twigs to form the “fences” that guide and trap the fish.
Did you know… ? Remnants of the oldest known weir in Canada, found preserved in silt at the narrows of Lake Simcoe in Ontario, have been carbon dated to 5,000 years ago, pre-dating the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Giza by almost 1,500 years. Samuel de Champlain noted seeing weirs as he sailed up the Saint Lawrence in September 1615. While weirs have existed in other parts of the world, European settlers may have copied the local indigenous technique and variations on weirs since used in the Saint Lawrence to trap everything from capelin to whales.
The right weir for the job
The tidal zones in the St. Lawrence estuary, where fresh and salt waters meet, were ideal for weir fishing. Situated on a wide, high shelf, the tidal flats are generally hard and rocky, making for easy access with horse and cart at low tide. Twice-daily tides of four or more metres brought all kinds of fishes and marine mammals close to shore for feeding or spawning. Near the mouths of the rivers flowing into the Saint Lawrence, migrating salmon, sturgeon or sea-trout were plentiful.
Weirs in the Saint Lawrence estuary, called “fisheries” in Metis, were all built using the same ancient principles and designs. However, the exact placement, size, and configuration used were unique to each structure according to culture, tradition, and knowledge of the local biosphere (climate, weather, currents, tides, fish behaviour, etc.).
Which species of fish and how many of each species were trapped depended on how far up the river the fishery was situated, as well as annual and seasonal variations in fish stocks. Eel, sturgeon, and porpoise were prevalent and prized in the islands west of Île-Verte, while salmon and herring were staples for people in the lower portion of the estuary further east.
Fishing or farming? In the Lower St. Lawrence, it’s both.
All the salmon caught in weirs, and a few of the smaller fish, went straight to local tables or were sold at market, fresh, dried salted, or smoked. Some fish were used as bait in other types of fisheries. However, much of the catch was used to fertilize farmers’ fields. Each year, thousands of tons of capelin and herring were trapped in the fisheries that dotted the shores. At low tide, “fishermen” in horse-drawn carts went out on the dry riverbed to “harvest” the catch. Using dip nets made from forked branches and netting, they transferred fish from the holding ponds to their carts, then carried the load inland where it was ploughed into the earth to feed crops that were eaten, sold at market or, fed to farm animals that produced eggs, milk and meat which in turn, were consumed locally or sold at market.
Fishing rights in Metis were held by the Seigneur who in turn granted those rights to his colonists. While this old feudal system was abolished in the middle of the 19th century, some Seigneurs maintained rights on their original grants long after. In Metis Beach, for example, some annual dues were paid to the Seigneur, or to his heirs, until after the Second World War.
The oldest people in the community can recall two fisheries near the Little Metis River that flows into Little Metis Bay and, a third in the Point Bay, behind Eagle Rock. The fisheries were run much in the fashion of a modern co-operative: men who worked at building and operating the fishery received a portion of the catch in payment.
These structures took several weeks to erect each spring. Work began in late winter when men went out with horse and sleigh to collect the saplings and branches used to construct the weir. During low tide that lasts only a few hours each day, hundreds of tall pickets were pounded into the rocky riverbed by men on tall scaffolds wielding massive wooden mallets. Hundreds of cartloads of smaller branches were then woven in-and-out of the upright pickets to create the fences that made up the trap.The structure was left in place over winter, to be broken and carried away by moving ice and tides.
The tide cycle in the Estuary lasts just under 13 hours, so that each consecutive tide occurs a bit later than the previous one. This means that the fishery filled twice a day, that the catch had to be harvested twice a day, and much sleep would thus be lost to the men involved. The fishery operated from May to October of each year. At any time during the season, a 2-foot-high gate could be open at the entrance to the holding pond, allowing a surplus or undesirable catch to escape unharmed.
The earliest spawners arrived before it was possible to work the fields, so fish was carried by cart to a nearby storage area. They ripened as the season progressed and the resulting stench was a memorable part of the fishery. (Hear XX tell… refer to heritage walk)
Fisheries and Oceans tide chart for Point-au-Père shows how each tide is successively later than the previous tide
The sun goes down on the Lower St. Lawrence fisheries
By the end of WWII, markets had dwindled and farming was in steep decline. At the end of the 50’s, Atlantic fish stocks crashed, leading to the demise of weir fishing in the region. The last fishery in the MRC de la Mitis, was seen in Grand-Métis, in the early 90’s.
So it is that these traditions of subsistance fishing and farming have been mostly lost to the region. Only the tradition of using fish to augment soil productivity is still alive. Today, all along the shores of the Gulf and River Saint Lawrence, reside steadfast gardeners who plant a capelin or herring alongside each potato set, a trick they learned as children helping with chores. On a larger scale, the Fafard group of companies produces a commercial compost using local peat moss and waste recycled from the shrimp-fishing industry, very popular with local gardeners,
The Mnjikaning Fish Weirs in Ontario are one of the oldest human developments in Canada. Learn about this National Historic Site at http:// www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=9679
See how fisheries were built and used in the Lower Saint Lawrence: http:// www.paraloeil.com/memoires-vives/11_peche-a-la-fascine-et-ependange? 3_4
In French, the weir is called a “fascine”, perhaps because of the way it fools fish, forcing them to swim round and round inside the circular enclosure.
Seemingly mesmerized, they never find the door where they entered the trap, through which they could easily escape.
“From the shadows, a hunched, stolid looking form menaces the river bank. Atop its head, a pair of white plumes dance jauntily from a dark cap. Beneath the brim, unblinking eyes glow like fanned embers. What manner of creature is this? A smuggler? A river pirate? No, only the Black-Crowned Night Heron.”
Book of North American Birds, 1990
English-speakers in Metis Beach call this medium-sized nocturnal heron a Couak, claiming they learned the word from Aboriginal peoples who frequented the area. They say the word refers to the night-heron’s loud, croaking cry. Even the bird’s scientific name – Nycticorax – “Night Raven”- stems from the bird’s call. They spend the day roosting in trees and forage at night, in fresh or saltwater wetlands, for frogs or small fish.
The fisheries in Little Metis Bay provided a steady source of food and easy catches for the large colony of couaks that established a rookery nearby. One Metis resident jokes about the substantial number of couaks that fed from the holding pond, saying there was “…one on every picket – made a terrible racket!”
The Night Heron colony disappeared from the area following the demise of local fisheries.