Fishing Grounds of the Gulf of Maine 1929

Gulf of Maine - Geographical & Historical


What is apparently the earliest mention of this body of water appears on some old Icelandic charts that show, roughly, Cape Cod Bay in their southern areas and the Bay of Fundy in the northern. On these maps the cape itself was shown on the "Promontory of Vinland" and was given the name Kialarnes, or the Ship's Nose, from its resemblance in form to the high upturned prow of the old Norse ships. To the entire area of the gulf was given the title Vinland's Haf.

Oviedo (Historia General de las Indias) sometimes names this gulf the Arcipelago de La Tramontana, or the Arcipelago Septentrional--the northern archipelago. He gives us to understand that he, himself, or Chaves, had this information from the Report and Survey of Gomez, who, in his search for a northwest passage to Asia in 1525, "discovered all these coasts lying between 41 deg. and 41 deg. 30' north". As a matter of fact, his careful explorations certainly covered all the territory between 40 and 45 degrees.

The Spanish navigators who followed Gomez, in describing these coasts, when indicating this gulf, usually named it in honor of Gomez, the first of their nation to make a careful survey of its shores. Thus it became known as the Arcipelago de Estevan Gomez, and the mainland behind it as La Tierra de Gomez. It was so named on the map of Ribero in 1529 who thus acknowledged the source of his information.

The Biscayans followed Gomez but later gave way to the French fishermen, who followed down the chain of banks extending southward from the Grand Bank and entered these waters by way of Cape Sable. These gave to it the name Gulf of Norumbega or Sea of Norumbega. The name Norumbega was for a time applied to the coast lands and to the inland country stretching away indefinitely westward and northwestward from the waters of the gulf.

Later, with the coming of the English and the establishment of their colony in Massachusetts, the title Massachusetts Bay came into general use, although this name was afterwards restricted to the smaller section of the gulf at present so termed.

The charter of Gorges (in April, 1639) designated the territory deeded to him as the Province or County of Maine,[4] whence, perhaps, the modern custom of referring to these waters as the Gulf of Maine may have arisen. This latest name seems especially appropriate, in view of the fact that the present State of Maine lying directly opposite its entrance capes, stretches along the inner borders of the gulf and with its deeply indented shore line occupies by far the greatest section of its coasts. Thus the title has finally come into general use and acceptance in modern times. Apparently it was first officially proposed and used by the Edinburgh Encyclopedia in 1832 [5] and later was adopted by the United States Coast Survey.

[Footnote 4: "All that parte, purport and porcion of the Mayne Land of New England, we doe name, ordeyne and appoynt shall forever hereafter bee called and named The Province and Countie of Mayne."]
[Footnote 5: Edinburgh Encyclopedia, Philadelphia edition, by Thomas Parker, Vol. XVIII, p. 263.]

A very striking and peculiar body of water is this Gulf of Maine, markedly different in character from any other of the bays on the coast line of the eastern United States. Especially does it differ in the depth of its coastal waters, where in all the others, except the much smaller New York Bay, the shoal water is found extending far out from the land.

In the Gulf of Maine, however, with the single exception of the vicinity of Ammens Rock on the eastern part of Cashes Bank, the entire central area presents navigable deep water having a mean depth of 100 fathoms, out of which rise the various underwater plateaus, whose depths average about 50 fathoms and which constitute the larger of the fishing grounds. In addition to these, many smaller banks and "fishing spots" are found nearer the land where they lie a along the 50-fathom curve.

In general this curve lies at a distance of about 16 miles from the coast line, but in many instances it approaches much neared to the mainland. From this 50-fathom depth the soundings decrease very gradually to the 20 and 10 fathom marks.

These latter soundings are often held far in toward the coast line, even carrying the deep water well into the river mouths, so that in deeply indented hays, in long inlets running far into land, in the river mouths, the deep water behind the rocky headlands, or in the lee of the thousands of surf-washed islands that line the coast, are found innumerable safe anchorages within easy run of the fishing grounds, where the fleets may take shelter from a sudden blow or await the arrival of a "fish day," when conditions may permit "making a set" under the hardships of winter fishing.

If the marine features of this region are radically different from those of other coastal bodies of the eastern United States, so, too, the shore land, battered as it has been by sea and storm or worn by glacial action or Arctic currents, is no less remarkable.

No other section of the eastern United States has a similar coast, so serrated, indented, and rugged, as has this shore line of the Gulf of Maine. Here the battering by the forces of nature has resulted in making thousands of safe harbors and havens for the navigator. All along shore are strewn hundreds of islands, a characteristic feature of the region and one noted with wonder by every early explorer. [6] These islands, if near the land, are beautiful and smiling; if in the open sea, of rugged grandeur; and mainland and island alike are inhabited by a numerous and hardy race of fisher folk.

The tides within the Gulf of Maine have a very great rise and fall as compared with other waters in this region. At the south of Cape Cod tides are seldom over 4 feet in their range, but beginning at once at the north of Cape Cod with a rise of from 7 to 10 feet these increase quite constantly as they go eastward reaching about 28 feet in the neighborhood of Passamaquoddy Bay, to touch their highest point in the Bay of Fundy, where in many places is a rise and fall of 50 feet, and in some few places tides of 70 feet are reported. These Fundy tides probably are the greatest in the world.

This great ebb and flow of water serves to aid shipbuilding and the launching of vessels as well as to carry the deep water far up into the inlets of the coast and into the mouths of the rivers, making these navigable for crafts of considerable size well into the land or up to the lowest falls of the streams.

The climate here is one of extremes, and, lying as it does between 42 deg. and 45 deg. north latitude, the region may be said to be cold. Apparently the waters of the Gulf of Maine are not affected by any stray current from the Gulf Stream, which passes at a considerable distance from its mouth, thus doing little to temper the cold of this area either on land or at sea. Whether these waters are cooled further by any flow from the Labrador Current may be questioned.

The winters are long, usually bringing heavy snowfalls; and strong gales are frequent during much of the fall and winter season. Perhaps the most dangerous of these "blows" come out of the mountain to the north and northwest of the gulf. Thus, in addition to the uncertainty of an opportunity to set gear when once upon the fishing grounds, the winter fishing here is not without its element of serious danger. While the ice crop in northern New England never fails, yet, perhaps because of the strong tidal currents of these waters, the principal harbors rarely are closed by ice, or, if closed, for but a few days only.

While the summers are fairly mild and in certain parts of them even extremely hot, fogs are heavy and virtually continuous during the "dog days" (July 20 to September 1). when southerly and south-westerly breezes bring the warm moist air from the Gulf Stream into the cooler currents from the land. The fogs of Fundy are especially noted, even in these waters. During the summer seasons winds from the east and north bring the only clear weather experienced in the outer chain of fishing grounds.

The main body of the gulf lies approximately between 42 deg. and 45 deg. north latitude. It is in form like a deep bowl whose outer rim is made by Georges Bank and Browns Bank, with a narrow, deep-water spillway between: its area is half encircled in the arms of the mainland, two conspicuous headlands reaching bodily seaward to mark its wide entrance at the opposite sides--Cape Cod, Mass. [7] on the western side, and Cape Sable, [8] Nova Scotia, on the eastern flank, distant from each other about 230 miles. These two capes range with each other about ENE. and WSW, thus matching alike the general trend of the coast line, of the island chains and of the offshore ledges within this area.

From a base line connecting these outposts of the gulf the distance to the Maine coast opposite averages about 120 miles. From Cape Sable, at its eastern end, the coast trends for some distance to the northwest, whence a continuation of this course strikes the coast of Maine near West Quoddy Head at a distance of rather more than 110 miles. From West Quoddy head to Cape Elizabeth (in a direct line about 160 miles) the coast, in general rough, rocky, and with many lofty headlands is extremely irregular and deeply indented and follows a general course of WSW. Thence, the coast, lower and becoming more and more sandy, begins to trend more decidedly south-west until it reaches Boston, when it turns to the southeast, and to the east toward Cape Cod.

But this is not the entire story. There remain outside of these stated limits the Bay of Fundy in the north, with a possible area of 3,000 square miles; and at the south Cape Cod Bay, whose area, with that of the waters west of a perpendicular drawn from the western end of the base line that strikes the land in the vicinity of Portsmouth, N. H. makes an additional section containing close to 1,500 square miles. Within the limits thus inclosed there are, roughly, 30,000 square miles of most productive ground most intensively fished through all the year.

The Bay of Fundy is divided at its head by Cape Chignecto, making two branches to north and to east--Chignecto Bay and Minas Basin. With these smaller areas, lying as they do entirely within the territorial limits of Canada, American fishermen have little to do, although both are valuable and productive fishing grounds.

[Footnote 6: William Strachey (1609), speaking particularly of Casco Bay, but the words equally applicable to almost any stretch of the Maine coast, says "A very great bay in which there lyeth soe many islands and soe thick and neere together, that can hardly be discerned the number, yet may any ship pause betwixt, the greatest part of them having seldom lesse water than eight or ten fathoms about them"--History of Travalle into Virginia Britannica.]

[Footnote 7: This, the most striking cape of the Atlantic coast line, made a very prominent landmark for all the early ocean voyagers approaching it, and all were greatly impressed by it, whether they came from the south and fought their way through its shoals to eastward, or, coming from the north, found themselves caught in the deep pocket which it makes with Cape Cod Bay.

The Spaniard Gomez (1525) gave it the name "Cabo de do Aricifes" cape of the reefs, referring to the dangerous shoals to the eastward. The Frenchmen Champlain and Du Monts named it "Cape Blanc", and the Dutch pilots, also noting its sandy cliffs, called it Witte Hoeck. The English mariners at first accepted his last name of White Cape, but the English Captain Anthony Gosnold, the first to make a direct passage to the waters of the Gulf of Maine from Europe, although at first he called it "Shoal Hope", soon changed this, because of the success of his fishing, to "Cape Cod", which title, commonplace though it be, has been the name to endure despite Prince Charles's attempt to change it to Cape James in honor of his father.]

[Footnote 8: Cape Sable, at the southern end of Nova Scotia, has held this title from very old times. It is so indicated on a Portuguese map of the middle of the sixteenth century.] back