Lake Nipissing’s Black Gold (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two part series.

Be sure to read part one if you haven’t already.

“Like finding a $100 bill in a fish’s belly”

Roy Cockburn, 1946
Roy Cockburn “The Caviar King” and a big ol’ dish of his caviar
Photo from the West Nipissing Public Library collection.
Credit and thanks to the WNPL for a fine collection helping us look back in time.

This is a long one, so strap in, and let’s continue where we left off…

Cockburn & Sons’ Limited

By 1988, J.D Cockburn, a man who wore many hats, had begun to really take advantage of the opportunity of harvesting Lake Nipissing’s sturgeon to satisfy caviar demand. The period with the largest harvests of the species in the lake’s history 1900-1908, saw an average of over 11,000 pounds of caviar being harvested annually. These harvests were split between the Cockburn fishery and one other commercial licence holder on the lake.

This ridiculous, ‘kid in a candy store’ style of management (or lack thereof) did a number on the sturgeon population, and by 1908 a moratorium was ordered to let the fish stock recover. The closure was short lived however, and by 1917 harvesting commercially was once again allowed.

Unfortunately, this early century collapse was only the beginning of the issues that the sturgeon population would face in the still young 20th century.

The Caviar King

The Caviar King and a lake sturgeon
Photo from the West Nipissing Public Library collection
Credit and thanks to the WNPL for a fine collection helping us look back in time.

In 1915, Roy Cockburn, son of J.D, and his brothers took over operations of the family fishery, and began fishing for sturgeon in Lake Nipissing.

“Wait”, you might say: “I thought you said fisheries were banned from harvesting sturgeon from Lake Nipissing until 1917.”

Yes, you’re not crazy, I did. This obvious non-compliance was admitted to by Cockburn in a newspaper article in 1946, and that’s just the beginning of the arrogance that the second generation of the Sturgeon Falls Cockburn’s would put on display.

By 1946, Roy was the sole owner operator of the Cockburn fishery on Lake Nipissing, and his caviar business had earned Roy the moniker “The King of Caviar” among locals. Additionally, Roy took the family tradition of involvement in local politics to another level, becoming the elected mayor of the town. His brother and former partner, George, was designated as the Indian Agent in the region, and the Cockburn stranglehold on the natural resources in the area grew. This was of course, a very profitable position for the family.

In a 1946 interview, Roy states that on average, they shipped 700 pounds of caviar annually, with particularly good years yielding upwards of 1,000 pounds. In the same article, the estimated profit to Roy per pound was about $4, which means the average year, his profits were around $2,800 per year from the harvests.

That’s a nice, but modest, return when you consider that includes the cost of operation, and was only one of his earning channels. It’s especially solid when you consider the serious hardship experienced in the Sturgeon Falls local economy between the depression in 1930s through to the post WWII period (Unknown Author1, n.d).

Oh, and by the way, $2,800 in 1946 adjusted for inflation to the year 2020 is $39,373 per year.

It’s good to be King.

Beyond the financial gain, the prestige associated with caviar was beginning to rub off on Roy. A letter from the National Film Board of Canada(1951) indicates he was the subject of a short film, cleverly titled Net Prophets.

In the same year, Roy received another letter, this time from the Lieutenant Governor of Canada, Ray Lawson(1951). The letter thanks Roy for caviar which had been sent to the Governor to treat to some very notable guests to the capital:

“A very welcome parcel has been received from you, but we will not open it until their royal highnesses, Princess Elisabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, arrive … we appreciate your caviar and this will be a great treat for our royal visitors.”

Lieutenant Governor of Canada Ray Lawson, Letter to Roy Cockburn in 1951

Yup. The current Monarch of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II, enjoyed Lake Nipissing caviar from Roy Cockburn two years before her coronation.

Princess Elizabeth, soon to be Queen, on a visit to New Brunswick in 1951, likely the same trip to Canada in which she was served Roy Cockburn’s caviar.
By Office of Protocol, New Brunswick – Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Reference No. P229-7, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12804311

And she wasn’t even the only European monarch that tried Lake Nipissing’s caviar. Emperor Wilhelm II of the German Empire also was known to enjoy caviar from Lake Nipissing with some regularity, while it was rumoured the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, had been a customer as well (Commanda, 2018).

Clearly, the caviar produced by the second generation Cockburn was of high quality and high regard, and this earned him his own royal title, as the King of Caviar, Ontario’s #1 caviar salesman.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (Right) and Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany (Left) we both propertied to have enjoyed Roy Cockburn’s caviar

(Left) By A. A. Pasetti – Photo comes from my own collection and was scanned by me. Mrlopez2681 03:20, 2 November 2006 (UTC)Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.; transfer was stated to be made by Pianist., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4327228

(Right) By Philip de László – (http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Philip_Alexius_de_Laszlo/Emperor_of_Germany.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3372343

I honestly think this story is sort of stunning.

For such a luxury product, a delicacy with worldwide prestige, to be associated with Lake Nipissing is really weird. The addition of the local dynasty of the Cockburn family makes the story more intriguing, as the family seemed to be a powerhouse, with a stranglehold of many of the resources and industries of Sturgeon Falls.

There is little doubt that the family was a local empire. Empires often come with a cost.

To understand these costs, you have to hear the other side of the story.

Robinson-Huron Treaty

In 1850, Nipissing First Nation (#10) was included in the Robinson-Huron Treaty. The treaty included $4.00 to each member annually, with no adjustment for inflation over time (notice the $4 happens to be the same amount of profit Roy Cockburn made on each pound of caviar). The treaty outlined the arrangement between settlers and Indigenous use of the territory and its resources (Commanda, 2018). The specific mention of fishing in addition to hunting, made the treaty the first of its kind in this regard.

By Xasartha – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32090257

It’s really important to understand that in the context of Indigenous language and perspective, the treaty was understood to essentially be an agreement of sharing, and non-interference between the parties sharing the territory. The treaty was only written in English, and there wasn’t an understanding of a transfer of ownership the Crown viewed it as. From their understanding, the settlers and First Nations peoples alike would have full access to the fish in Lake Nipissing (Pottery, 2016).

They were half right.

The Myth of Abundance

The abundance of natural resources in the North, and the associated opportunity for financial gain, was a major selling point to settlers moving into the Lake Nipissing area (Department of Agriculture, 1880).

In my research for this article, I came across a (very) old pamphlet from the 1880 which advertised for settling in the Muskoka and Nipissing regions.

The pamphlet makes multiple references to abundance of resources, including specific mentions of the area’s fish:

“The numerous lakes and rivers literally swarm with fish of the best varieties, such as salmon trout, white fish, trout, herring, maskinonge, bass, pike, pickerel and many other kinds.”

Information for Intending Settlers: Muskoka and Lake Nipissing, Department of Agriculture, 1880

This isn’t the only reference which implies the fish were plentiful in the region, and connects well to the concept of “The Myth of Abundance“. The ‘myth’ developed in colonial societies, experiencing irrationality in response to the seemingly endless supply of land and natural resources in North America compared to back home in Europe. As a result of the myth, which was entrenched generation by generation, as well as the popular understanding of “nature” as a frontier to be tamed, settlers misused and damaged the quality and quantity of natural resources. Settlers were basically under the impression that the resources were so plentiful that they could never be exhausted.

Now to be fair, the pamphlet, maybe read by one J.D Cockburn himself, does make reference to the need for conservation of resources despite the abundance:

“There is a good deal of game in this part of the country and no game laws to preserve it for the exclusive use of particular persons. The laws simply refer to confining hunting and fishing to their proper seasons, to prevent destruction during breeding seasons, which would very soon have the effect of destroying the game entirely, and in this every man in the country has an interest, the property in game being common to all.”

Information for Intending Settlers: Muskoka and Lake Nipissing, Department of Agriculture, 1880

This quote acknowledges a real key when it comes to resources: we’re all in the same boat. The quote shows a clear understanding that the way that the resource is used will effect the quality and quantity of the resource pool in the future. More importantly, it explicitly acknowledges that the fate of the resource will effect all of the different people(s) depending on it.

Given what came next, there’s some irony here.

Conservation and Control

The people of Nipissing First Nation were under the impression their use of the fish in Lake Nipissing for the subsistence of their community would continue uninterrupted by the settlers.

Unfortunately, something else was coming.

Gradually, as the century moved forward, limits and restrictions were placed on fishing in the lake. Now one might think the concern would be overfishing, and that any restrictions put in place would have everything to do with the size of harvests, the quantity of fish being caught. Just seems like common sense.

The regulations the Department of Fish and Game put in place were actually the imposition of preference to the settler market, with banning of traditional indigenous techniques for sturgeon fishing like night fishing, as well as a ban on the use of spears and the traditional net designs used by the Nipissing (Commanda, 2018).

Nipissing people living in the Garden Village community (pictured above) were persecuted for their sturgeon fishing techniques.
By P199 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10247097

With any conservation or preservation effort, their is a cost, usually a direct restriction on economic activity, like harvesting fish, to reduce the damage to the environment. In this case, because of the restrictions chosen, those costs were imposed directly on the Nipissing people, with regulations aimed at reducing their harvests, their right to which had been guaranteed by the Robinson-Huron Treaty.

It was of course preposterous that the Nipissing were considered the threat to the fishery. The Anishnabee people of the region have been fishing sturgeon from Lake Nipissing for literally thousands of years (Pottery, 2016). Not only did they sustain the fish stocks over that massive duration of time, the resource was described as thriving and plentiful in the settler’s literature upon their arrival (Department of Agriculture, 1880). These restrictions shouldn’t have just raised eyebrows, they were just the transparent imposition of power.

Hell, it seems like if conservation of the fish population was the goal, the settlers should have been asking for the advice of Nipissing First Nations people.

It seems pretty obvious that the Robinson-Huron Treaty would not have been agreed to if the transfer of ownership and potential for such restrictions had been evident or understood.

Evidently, the regulations were less concerned with the settler commercial use of the resource, given the harvest of 11,000 + lbs. of caviar (and 143,159 lbs of sturgeon itself) annually between 1900-1908 (Commanda, 2018). When you think about the fact that Lake Nipissing likely wouldn’t even have been commercially exploited as heavily for sturgeon and caviar had the Great Lakes not been overfished for the product by the 1880’s, it’s pretty easy to see what was coming next (Ontario Rivers Alliance, 2009).

Following the 9 year moratorium on sturgeon fishing the the lake, harvests began. In 1925 Lake Nipissing harvesting surged to represent 40% of the caviar produced in Ontario, and in ten short years, that number dwindled to 8% as harvests became smaller by 1935 (Harkness & Dymond, 1961). There were less and less sturgeon as a result of over fishing.

The obvious pattern here, first in the Great Lakes, and then in Lake Nipissing, is overuse and exploitation.

This is a textbook example of “conservation” as the imposition of power onto a vulnerable group. The regulations and restrictions were passed in the name of environmental protection, and yet the practices that continued were far more detrimental than those that had been excluded. Simply put, the restrictions were a way to allocate more of the resource to the colonial society and its members.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying all environmental law and policy is simply the imposition of power. I earned a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies studying policy specifically, and I think I’d be disappointing my former colleagues and myself if that was my take on environmental policy. Many, or even most, of these policies are crucial checks on devastating human behaviours. In fact, better policy probably would have prevented the gross overfishing of sturgeon on Lake Nipissing.

It’s incredibly important that we look back on the unintended (in this case, likely intended) consequences of the policy, and the way the costs of that conservation are distributed, aiming for more equitable and enforceable policy in the future.

As time proved, the commercial fishing was a much bigger threat to the Lake Nipissing Sturgeon than the traditional harvest techniques of the Nipissing people. Both the sturgeon and the Nipissing people have paid the price for the (mis)management of the resource.

Both continue to suffer the consequences.

Decimation of Lake Nipissing Sturgeon

When you think about it, the commercial harvesting of fish for caviar calls for incredibly delicate balance. The species has a long life span, and many lake sturgeon live be 100 years old. The species has a low reproductive rate as females only produce eggs every six years or so (Ontario Rivers Alliance, 2008). Studies suggest sturgeon harvests should represent less than 5% of the population for sustainable use (Commanda, 2018). The unchecked harvesting specifically for the quality of reproduction, logically speaking, inevitably leads to the collapse of that fishery.

Juvenile Lake Sturgeon
By USFWSmidwest – Juvenile Lake Sturgeon, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69205021

To put this simply and drive it home: when the nets were cast, fishermen were hoping to harvest the very fish that would re-stock the lake. Without being careful about the number of fish harvested annually, a decline in the sturgeon population in Lake Nipissing was a foregone conclusion.

Enforcement matters to.

As previously mentioned, in 1908 the resource was beginning to suffer the consequences of overfishing after the most intense sturgeon fishing period of Lake Nipissing’s history. The overfishing necessitated a moratorium on fishing sturgeon in the lake between 1908-1917.

This is where enforcement comes in.

Interestingly, in a newspaper interview from 1946, Roy Cockburn admits he has been harvesting sturgeon since 1915. It sure seems that the priority in the policy was control rather than conservation given he openly boasted about a clear infraction of the regulation. A total ban of harvests was going unenforced on one group, while the technique of harvest after the ban was enforced on the other. There’s not much to say about this other than the priority of the policies and their enforcement was clearly not one of conservation.

No records exist for the harvest of sturgeon on Lake Nipissing from 1924-1959 (Commanda, 2018). It sure doesn’t seem like limiting harvests to preserve stocks was a priority through this part of the 20th century if they couldn’t be bothered to record and report the size of the harvests.

The impact of overfishing of the sturgeon was compounded by the changes in the habitat due to human use around the lake. A mill built on the Sturgeon River around the turn of the 20th century increased the turbidity and suspended solids and particulates in a key spawning ground for sturgeon, further stressing the reproduction of the species (Ontario Rivers Alliance, 2009).

Later projects on Lake Nipissing, including a sewage treatment plant and hydroelectric production, changed the chemistry and physical characteristics of the habitat, including changes in temperature detrimental to the delicate process of sturgeon spawning. Only about 1% of sturgeon eggs survive in the best of conditions, meaning these changes likely had major impacts on the reproductive capacity and population of the fish.

The situation obviously got worse over the next half a century, and commercial fishing of sturgeon was no longer viable or permitted due to depleted stocks by the 1990’s. By this time, the exercise by Nipissing people of fulfilling their treaty rights and traditional livelihoods by fishing for sturgeon began to become more stigmatized, as their continued fishing was seen as selfish exploitation of a shared resource (Pottery, 2016).

This is of course, incredibly ironic given the sturgeon were plentiful for thousands of years, but less than a century of colonial control decimated the population.

The Nipissing people were left with the feeling that the spirit of non-interference in the Robinson-Huron Treaty had been broken on the part of the crown by their restrictive policy of traditional harvesting. To add insult to injury, they also had to suffer blame and scrutiny of ruining the recovery for the continuing to practice their treaty rights to fish the lake sturgeon, which of course had become much more difficult because of overexploitation by businesses.

When you consider the reduced capacity of the Sturgeon to meet subsistence needs it filled prior to the overfishing, the cost of the unchecked harvests of Nipissing’s black gold rests heavy on the shoulders of Nipissing First Nation.

And the sturgeon themselves aren’t any better off. Despite strict bans on commercial sturgeon fishing, a recent study by Nikki Commanda(2018) showed that in the 30 years or so since, the population in Lake Nipissing has not rebounded, and continues to require an endangered label. Her conclusion ponders why Traditional Ecological Knowledge (the data pertaining to ecology in the oral histories by Indigenous peoples) held by the Nipissing peoples hasn’t been sought out in order to replicate the management that allowed the population to be so strong to begin with.

After reading her paper, I’m inclined to agree.

By USFWSmidwest – Oh hey there baby lake sturgeon!, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69203949

So the story of the Caviar King of Lake Nipissing is one of opportunity, riches, prestige.

But it’s also a tale of betrayal, greed, and the destructive capacity of humankind.

So what can we learn from this story?

Equitability, environmental policy, and sustainability

You wouldn’t think there’s much to learn from this story in terms of environmental policy other than, basically: “Don’t do that”.

But there is a lesson here about equitability and sustainability of policy.

Sure, it’s pretty easy to ague that the policies that were put in place were obviously targeting First Nations harvests, and probably had little to do with the preservation of the sturgeon population. That said, this obvious power imposition reminds us that in any environmental policy, it is crucial that the economic costs are distributed in a way that is equitable.

Pretend the rules passed concerning the harvesting techniques would have made a huge positive impact on the sturgeon population, I know this would seem more likely if they also limited the amount harvested, but bare with me. Pigeonholing the Nipissing people into different techniques for harvests left them with the choice to either harvest the new way, abandoning thousands of years of expertise passed down generation by generation, or break the rule and risk penalties from enforcement. They were aware that commercial harvesting wasn’t being restricted, and this would only contribute to resentment.

If the cost of a resource use rule falls squarely on the shoulders of one group, and that group’s change of behaviour is what’s being relied on to create the positive change, will that that rule actually be effective?

Had the officials making the policy considered this?

Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. But it’s pretty clear that their chosen policy instrument was ineffective, as the population collapsed relatively promptly, and it put the Nipissing people through some undue suffering to compound other colonial issues.

There are two sides to the rules, enforcement and compliance. Even the most common sense rules have to feel legitimate for people to comply.

With the transparent imposition of cost on the First Nations people, it seems to me non-compliance was probably rampant. Thus, even if the effects of those rules had been really positive in theory, the rule wouldn’t be effective because it wouldn’t be followed. Given enforcement on Indigenous people was often quite strict, the non-compliance likely led to increased tension between settlers and First Nations in the area, a negative knock-on effect of the ineffective policy, and perpetuating the strained relationship with First Nations peoples.

Frontier nepotism

When a small town is founded, it seems pretty inevitable that those who get in on the ground floor have a massive opportunity to become a political and economic cornerstone of that town. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, it’s pretty natural when you consider that the needs of the community are many, and there’s only so many people to fill them. In an area rich with natural resources, like Sturgeon Falls for instance, an early claim to the market is a golden ticket.

The Cockburns exemplify this perfectly, with J.D establishing a small local empire, and his sons taking it over.

The issue is that in this case, as in many I’m sure, the family members become prominent community members, and hold prominent official roles in the community, with which they can create advantageous situations in their business endeavours. For example, Roy’s brother George’s role as the Indian Agent for the region contributed to Roy’s acquisition of a local cranberry marsh which had helped sustain the Nipissing People for hundreds of years. The lack of enforcement on the sturgeon harvesting during the moratorium, and the lack of limits to commercial harvesting, further exemplify this. The potential for nepotism and family favours only grows when one considers Roy was literally the Mayor of Sturgeon Falls.

Let’s put this bluntly:

Imagine today, the Mayor of your community was commercially harvesting as much fish from the lake as he desired, specifically for their eggs, year after year, without recording the harvests at all. Oh by the way your mayor is also making a small fortune on that business, in addition to his others, while the town suffered a multi-decade period of devastating economic hardship. All the while, subsistence fishermen were persecuted for their harvests of that same fish.

Absolutely unacceptable, right?

Basically, there was no check on the Caviar King, and it had devastating consequences on the environment and those who rely on it. It is my firm belief that while we need businesses to create, we also need government must protect. With such a blurred line between the two, it’s not surprising that the incentives of profit and self interest outweighed the concern for the common good.

Where rules come from and healthy scepticism

Finally, this story reminds us that rules come from somewhere. When the powers that be make decisions, even with the best of intentions, they can have unintended consequences. When these good intentions are absent, the results are even worse.

It’s pretty obvious from my reading of this research that this was a clear case of discrimination on the Nipissing people built into the environmental policies concerning the sturgeon harvests on Lake Nipissing. The disadvantage to the First Nations subsistence fishers was a feature of the policy, not a bug.

This reminds us that we must be diligent. When we read about a new law or policy, we should think critically:

Who benefits? What are the costs and how are they distributed?

Now I’m not saying we should descend into nihilism because rules are just the imposition of power and everything is incredibly arbitrary. I’ve been there. It’s a bad mental spot, and there’s just no room for improvement.

I believe in improvement.

What I am saying, is that we should practice healthy scepticism, and be active and informed about the rules that concern us. If something isn’t right, it should be challenged through the appropriate channels. When it comes to rules about the environment, they concern all of us.

Our elected officials are just that, elected, and if they aren’t serving the public benefit, or are blatantly serving a specific interest over others, we should make sure those so called leaders are never in a position to make those types of decisions again.

Be skeptical, be diligent, be critical. But never let your scepticism crush your belief in improvement.

So there you have it, the story of Nipissing’s black gold and the Caviar King.

Both sides of the story.

RM


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Sources:

Castilloux (n.d) 1913 Sturgeon Falls Election.

Department of Agriculture (1880). Information for intending settlers: Muskoka and Lake Nipissing Districts.

Harkness & Dymond (1961). The Lake Sturgeon: The history of the Fishery and problems of conservation.

Lebelle (1995) Sturgeon Falls.

Lieutenant Governor of Canada Lawson (1951). Letter to Roy Cockburn.

Mcleod (1946). Mayor Nets Nipissing Black Gold.

National Film Board of Canada (1951). Letter to Roy Cockburn.

Ontario Rivers Alliance (2009). The Lake Sturgeon in Ontario.

Pottery (2016). Fishing for Subsistence, Sport, and Sovereignty on Lake Nipissing.

Saffron (2002). Caviar: The strange history and uncertain future of the world’s most coveted delicacy.

Unknown Author1 (n.d). Remember Sturgeon Falls Yesterday.

Unknown Author2 (n.d). The history of the town of Sturgeon Falls and its Masonic Lodge.

Special Thanks to Nikki Commanda. While I don’t know her, her research paper: Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser Fulvescens) Management and Status Update for the Lake Nipissing Watershed, served as the inspiration for this me to tell this story


By THOR – Caviar on Black, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40606636

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