Sunday, September 10, 2006

Weir Fishing on the Bay

Early this morning I heard my neighbour rumble by in his pickup truck and, since the tide was a couple of hours from being fully out, I figured he was heading down to the beach to check his fish weir for herring, mackeral and assorted other fish. Mussels are certainly not the only seafood that we locals eat that comes from the Bay! Although weir-fishing appears to be a very low-tech (dare I say "biblical") way of catching fish, it is extremely effective. Last year, in a single tide, my neighbour told me that he caught 42 tonnes of fish! Chances are that if you live in North America and eat canned sardines (which are actually herring before they get bigger), those fish probably came from the Bay of Fundy.

People have been weir fishing in the Bay of Fundy for hundreds of years. When European settlers arrived in my area in the 1770s, they would have found our first nations (Passamaquody and Mik'maq) peoples already using brush weirs to catch fish.

So....what is a Weir?
A weir is heart or kidney shaped structure built from long poles and netting that acts to catch and concentrate fish. Fish swimming along the shore first encounter a net running perpendicular to the shoreline and alter their course to swim along it. This "fence" directs the fish into the mouth of the weir where they swim across the weir and encounter the back twine. Once inside the weir, the fish swim in a figure eight pattern always being directed away from the mouth by the curve of the netting (or twine).

Where I live, in the upper part of the Bay, the tide goes out so far that the weirmen actually walk out on the ocean floor a couple of hours before low tide to tend their weirs. There is still a few feet of water in the weir so they move around inside the net scooping up live fish with their hand nets. Since it's low tide they can drive their trucks out onto the beach of the intertidal zone and toss the fish into the fish boxes to take them fresh to market. If you're on the beach at the right moment you can try your hand at gathering fish out of the weir (it's not as easy as it looks) or, at the very least, you can enoy buying fresh fish right out of the water!!

The tricky bit about weir fishing is that the weir needs to be checked with every tide - otherwise the nets risk being damaged by pesky seagulls. It takes 6 hours and 13 minutes for the tide in the Bay of Fundy to go from high to low. Therefore, it's about 12 and 26 minutes from one low tide to the next low tide (or one high tide to the next high tide).

For example if the tide was:
high at 8 am this morning,
it would be low at 2:13 pm,
then high again at about 8:26 pm,
and low again at 2:45 am tomorrow
then high again just before 9 am tomorrow, etc.

So the tide times effectively move ahead about an hour every day. If the tide is high at noon today, it will be high around 1 pm tomorrow. This makes for some fairly inconvenient times for several days of the month when my neighbour has to go out to check his weir in the middle of the night!

In other parts of the Bay of Fundy, such as off Grand Manan Island, the weirs are fished with seining nets from floating boats because the tide doesn't go out far enough to expose the whole weir. The seine boat crew manoeuvers around the inside of the weir, deploying the net into the water. Once completely around, the bottom of the seine can be drawn tight (or pursed). The herring are then literally brought to the surface in the seine by bringing the seine back on board the seine boat.

I'll see if I can track down some drawings or pictures of the two types of related Bay of Fundy weirs.

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