NIELSEN, ADOLPH, superintendent of fisheries; b. 14 Aug. 1852 in Christiania (Oslo), Norway; m. Emily —, and they had one daughter; d. 1 Nov. 1903 in St John’s.
In July 1887 two officials of the Norwegian fisheries department, Jens Dahl and his assistant Adolph Nielsen, visited St John’s as part of a tour of departments and markets in North America. The visit was timely since earlier that year the Newfoundland legislature had voted to establish a commission that would examine fisheries management in other countries and suggest how the colony might set up its own department. By the mid 1880s the island’s cod fishermen were experiencing poor catches and increasing competition in their traditional markets from France and Norway.
The commission, appointed in August 1887, consisted of members from government and opposition parties, including Sir Robert Thorburn, Edward Dalton Shea*, Patrick J. Scott*, Robert Bond*, Robert Stewart Munn*, and William Henry Whiteley, with Augustus William Harvey as chair and Moses Harvey corresponding secretary. While in St John’s, Nielsen met Moses Harvey, who for many years had advocated a government department to regulate the fisheries. Harvey was impressed with the Norwegian emphasis on hatcheries to restore cod stocks. Since 1884, through artificial propagation, Norway had successfully hatched more than 67 million cod eggs for distribution along its coast. In October 1887, at Harvey’s request, Nielsen prepared a report for the commission on the Norwegian fisheries and his recommendations for a government department.
Nielsen suggested that the department consist of a superintendent with assistants to inspect local fisheries. In a job description which suited his own qualifications, he proposed that a person “acquainted with both your own and your competitor’s method of catch and cure of fish would be preferable.” The first tasks of the superintendent should be to establish a cod hatchery and have laws passed for the protection of young fish.
In its report of March 1888, the fisheries commission recommended not a department, but a non-partisan body “kept entirely apart from the movements of political parties” to oversee the establishment of cod hatcheries under a competent expert and to promulgate regulations governing the fisheries. The new body would be funded by the government, with supplementary assistance from the St John’s Chamber of Commerce.
Following unsuccessful enquiries in England, the United States, and Canada, in September 1888 the commission, at Moses Harvey’s suggestion, offered the superintendent’s position to Nielsen. As Harvey wrote in the Evening Mercury, Nielsen was “sufficiently scientific while thoroughly practical. A pure scientist is not what we want; but one who has an experimental and practical acquaintance with fisheries in all their details.” In November Nielsen secured his release from the Norwegian department of fisheries, which first wanted to retain him at a higher salary and then required him to find a replacement. He was hired for a five-year period at an annual salary of 3,000 Newfoundland dollars. The following June the government had legislation passed establishing a permanent fisheries commission chaired by A. W. Harvey, with Moses Harvey as secretary. Nielsen was given a second five-year contract in 1893, and the commission was replaced that year by a department.
Nielsen had arrived in Newfoundland on 15 Feb. 1889, having first investigated two American cod hatcheries and purchased equipment for one in Newfoundland. He chose a site on Dildo Island in Trinity Bay, where a two-storey building was erected. The following year the facility hatched 17 million codfish; the five-year total was nearly 645 million. In November 1890 a tidal wave destroyed wharves and fish wells, but all were rebuilt the following year. An outbreak of grippe in 1891 struck Nielsen, his staff, and fishermen in nearby communities, with the result that he was unable to secure sufficient fish for the hatchery. Following the collapse of the island’s two commercial banks in December 1894 [see James Goodfellow*; A. W. Harvey], the government gradually reduced its assistance to the Dildo hatchery, and in 1896 Nielsen maintained it himself. A. W. Harvey supported the hatchery for another year, but after 1897 it was apparently closed.
Nielsen had blamed poor catches in the cod fishery on the taking of young fish, and he had had regulations passed increasing the size of the traps used [see Whiteley]. He also sought to improve the curing of codfish and herring, introducing Norwegian techniques, which he adapted to local needs. His pamphlet on curing was translated into French in the early 1890s, and in 1897 Nielsen would be made an officier d’académie of France in recognition of his work on fisheries off Newfoundland and Saint-Pierre. He initiated a method for freezing bait fish on a large scale through the construction of refrigeration houses in two south-coast communities and encouraged fishermen to use a freezing barrel, in which bait was stored with ice and salt.
To increase the number of lobsters, Nielsen developed the floating incubator, which the ever-optimistic Moses Harvey claimed in 1894 put Newfoundland ahead of other countries. Incubators were placed in all the major bays to hatch ova saved from the canneries, and the young lobsters were later set free. Nielsen also had regulations enacted for the policing of salmon rivers to prevent their pollution by sawmill operators.
He viewed the credit system as an impediment to development of the fisheries, “one of the greatest curses,” he wrote in 1894, “that ever fell upon this country and its people.” Not only had it demoralized the people, but it had prevented “improvements in the products of the fisheries and the trade,” thereby damaging Newfoundland’s competitive edge in world markets. “In these times of keen competition,” he maintained, island fish had to be as good as that produced in other countries.
In January 1896, two years before the end of his second five-year contract, ill health forced Nielsen to go back to Norway. He had worked year round in damp, cold weather and developed asthma. He returned to Newfoundland in late 1896, and his interests now lay in promoting the whaling industry. In December he helped form the Cabot Steam Whaling Company, whose directors included A. W. Harvey and his son John, Moses Harvey, and Sir William Vallance Whiteway. Nielsen became a focus for Norwegian businessmen interested in the whaling industry in Newfoundland. He helped to establish several whaling stations using expertise, capital, and technology from his native country. After 1898 his family lived in Norway so that his daughter could be educated there.
Nielsen died suddenly at St John’s in November 1903. There has been no assessment of his work, either then or now, although the press in the mid 1890s reported that codfish abounded in bays that had been deficient for many years. His legacy was in improving the curing of fish and persuading public officials, merchants, and fishermen to adopt the most up-to-date, scientific methods. His career in Newfoundland fulfilled Moses Harvey’s expectations a decade earlier: an individual who would introduce modern ideas to the local fishery.
Adolph Nielsen’s 1887 report to the Newfoundland Fisheries Commission on Norwegian fisheries appears in the Report of the fisheries commission . . . to investigate the operations of fisheries departments in other countries (St John’s, 1888). His survey of various bays for a site for the hatchery eventually established at Dildo Island was published as Report by Mr. Adolph Nielsen, of his journey around the heads of Conception, Trinity and Placentia bays ([St John’s, 1889]), and also appeared in the St John’s Evening Telegram of 15 April 1889. Nielsen’s Report on the cure of codfish and herring (St John’s, 1890) was evidently of enough interest to be reissued the following year by fisheries inspectors in Dublin and in a French translation at Saint-Pierre as Préparation et conservation de la morue et du hareng, Ernest Antoine, trad.; it was also reprinted by the Newfoundland Dept. of Marine and Fisheries in 1930. Nielsen’s other publications include Directions for the manufacture of cod-liver oil . . . (St John’s, 1896), but only the second part of this pamphlet seems to have survived.
Official publications concerning Nielsen, all issued at St John’s, include the Newfoundland Fisheries Commission’s initial Report of 1888 (cited above), its second report in Nfld, House of Assembly, Sessional papers, 1889: 614–24, and its Annual report, 1891: 16–17, 19–20; the reports of the Dept. of Fisheries for 1896 (p.312) and 1897 (p.354), in the House of Assembly Journal appendices for 1897 and 1898 respectively; and the department’s Annual report, 1893/94: 3, 30–39, 46–47, and 1902: 6.
General Protestant Cemetery (St John’s), Church records. PANL, MG 339. Colonist (St John’s), 15–16 Jan. 1891. Daily News (St John’s), 16 June, 5 July 1894; 26 April 1897; 2 Nov. 1903. Evening Herald (St John’s), 26 Sept. 1890, 19 Dec. 1896, 2 Nov. 1903. Evening Mercury (St John’s), 30 July–6 Aug., 16 Aug. 1887; 15 Sept., 30 Nov. 1888. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 24 April 1897; 2 Nov. 1903; 19 Oct. 1987: 6; 16 Nov. 1987: 6. Biblio. of Nfld (O’Dea and Alexander). P. W. Browne, Where the fishers go; the story of Labrador (New York, 1909), 168. Encyclopedia of Nfld (Smallwood et al.), 2: 167–68. M[oses] Harvey, Newfoundland as it is in 1894; a handbook and tourists’ guide (St John’s, 1894), 160–65; “The Newfoundland Fisheries Commission,” in Prowse, Hist. of Nfld (1895), 647–51. Ronald Rompkey, Grenfell of Labrador: a biography (Toronto, 1991). Shannon Ryan, Fish out of water: the Newfoundland saltfish trade, 1814–1914 (St John’s, 1986). Chesley Sanger and Anthony Dickinson, “The origins of modern shore based whaling in Newfoundland and Labrador: the Cabot Steam Whaling Co. Ltd., 1896–98,” International Journal of Maritime Hist. (St John’s), 1 (1989), no.1: 129–57. Louise Whiteway, “Inception of the Newfoundland Department of Fisheries,” Nfld Quarterly, 55 (1956), no.2: 29–43.