April 27, 2022
-by Eileen Coady
As May approaches, there are those in the county who happily await a “feed of fresh gaspereau.” And along the banks of the South West branch of the Margaree River, the echoes of past seasons bring memories of a tradition of hard work, family solidarity, and community cooperation – all in pursuit of the gaspereau.
For the uninitiated, gaspereau are bony silver-sided fish, plentiful in rivers draining into the Atlantic Coasts of North America. Also known as alewives, and kiack in rivers in southwestern Nova Scotia, the gaspereau arrive in the Margaree River between April and June. They swim up the South West branch about 10 miles, spawning in Loch Ban in the southeast corner of Lake Ainslie. While the season officially begins on May 1st, their “big run” was once thought to be around the long weekend in May; in more recent years, it happens in early June.
Some say that the gaspereau run coincides with the blossoming of the serviceberry (shadbush) trees along the river banks. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the native people of Unima’ki timed their seasonal migration to the Margarees with the arrival of the “Kaspelaw.” Kaspelaw, a word still in common use, is likely the origin of the name gaspereau and Mi’kmaw fishers have continued to fish the river well into recent times. The Gaels, who settled along the river from the early 1800s onward, used the gaspereau both domestically and commercially. From the early days, through to the mid 1900s, the plentiful fish were caught by local residents, in small numbers using simple means and consumed fresh.
A recollection from an elderly man from the area speaks to the seasonal abundance. “I can remember my mom would say, run down to the river and get me some gaspereau for supper and she would give me the bucket. I’d take my boots off and I’d go in the river and fill up the bucket. You know that saying, ‘the river is black with fish’. It used to get black.”
A family affair
Gaspereau fishing season has always been a family affair in Margaree. Generations of men have worked the traps and prepared the barrels for shipping. Women picked up farm duties through the busy weeks, brought meals to the workers, and often took part in preparing the fish for market. Children helped as well, lending a hand with the physical work as they grew able. Family members recall mealtime picnics along the riverbank during long work days. It was a time for socializing, with friends and neighbours dropping by, discussing the fishing and sharing anecdotes.
Farming families located their gaspereau berths or weirs adjacent to their properties. These sites have sometimes remained in place for generations; others have been relocated over the years, depending on natural changes in the river bed.
In a pickle
As well as being sold locally, fresh and salted, there has been a long history of exporting pickled gaspereau from the Margarees to the Caribbean, particularly Haiti. In addition, the fish are sold for lobster bait to local fishermen as the two seasons usually coincide.
A type of wooden sluice trap was traditionally used in the Margaree River. “Leaders,” or wings, guided the fish into the trap where they were scooped up with a dip net and transferred to a chute situated on the decking. This process was physically demanding and required considerable skill and balance. The fishery was transformed during the 1970s with the introduction of the tip trap. Invented locally by Mi’kmaw fisherman Stephen Googoo, it was easier and more efficient to operate. Margaree fishermen copied this design, resulting in larger catches.
Preparing the fish for shipping is a process that has also undergone dramatic changes over the past 50 years. Once packed in large wooden barrels, the fish and brine had to be handled correctly to ensure the pickling was adequate to gain a high grade by the buyers. Today, the gaspereau are pickled in large vats and then packed in plastic pails, sealed, and readied for shipment. The process is time sensitive and can be stressful; such moments captured in a tune by Scott Macmillan called the Gaspereau Pickle, while visiting the Peters family operation during the height of the season!
Over the last half century, flooding, river bank erosion, and the presence of striped bass in the river system have all impacted the gaspereau harvest. Significantly declining catches during the 1980s led to consultation between local fisher associations and DFO officials to address the issue. Regulations, in particular a rotating fishing schedule, now support some 13 families who fish the river.
The gaspereau still run. And for those who enjoy a feed, it won’t be long now.
Interpretive panels, hung seasonally outside the parish hall at S.W. Margaree, celebrate this proud fishing tradition.