Dockside Discoveries: Fishing for Knowledge

Long hallway with display of machinery and exhibit panels in a history museum
The canning line bright lit by natural sunlight.

Submitted by Jordan Fenske

Innovative Technology

Electricity, steam, and gas power ushered in new forms of machinery to speed up the catching, processing, and distribution of fish. Further, electricity brought in a simple, yet revolutionary, innovation to the cannery – the lightbulb.  

An important innovation that significantly affected the speed at which fish was caught, was none other than the gas motor which allowed for fishing further out, at a much more productive pace. However the introduction of the gas motor was not all positive, at least not for everyone. For many years, Japanese fishermen were prohibited from acquiring and using gas motors, so they had to rely on the traditional rowing method. This unfortunately put the Japanese fishermen at a disadvantage against the other fishermen who were permitted to use this innovative piece of technology.  

Another innovation of note was the mechanized canning line. This innovation allowed for the exponentially quicker processing of fish. Canneries could put out much larger amounts of fish compared to the much slower method of using workers to process fish all by hand. This innovation did bring positives, especially for the owners of the canneries. However, once again the positive of innovation does find an underlying negative. That negative would be the number of cannery workers whose jobs were threatened due to the more efficient machines. So remember, machines can bring efficiency, but often at the cost of someone’s livelihood.  

Lastly, the innovation of the lightbulb allowed for the cannery to continue operating for longer hours. The sun setting no longer marked the forced end of the workday. It is very easy for us in the present to take for granted something as seemingly insignificant as a lightbulb, especially since every building and everyone room nowadays has them. However, for people in the past, installing lightbulbs into the cannery, would have been quite amazing. This allowed people to work more hours to make more money for their families. Especially in the winter when the sun set much earlier. Yet again, the lightbulb marks another innovation that lends itself to the increase of productivity.  

I believe that it is of the utmost importance to delve into the history of innovation at the cannery. It is easy to forget about the negative sides of the innovations when the positives are promoted much louder. Knowing the pros and cons, the good and bad of any new idea, innovation, or invention allows for a much more fair and accurate depiction of all perspectives to the story.  

To learn more about the effects of innovation on Canada’s west coast canning and fishing communities, visit our feature exhibit, “Waves of Innovation: Stories of the West Coast” on display now until Spring 2023.