THE BRITISH FISHERIES IN THE 1950s

Numbers Employed - Types of Fish Landed - Fishing Areas - Fishing Methods - Next Page


IN round figures the fisheries of the United Kingdom employ about
65,000 men, or in all give employment to double’ that number of people, so that, with dependants, approximately half a million of the population of the country depend upon this industry.2 The annual catch is about a million tons, and the fishing fleet numbers over 12,000 vessels. According to FAO, the world production of sea- fish is 21,000,000 metric tons annually, so that Britain’s share is about 5 per cent. of the world’s total. So far as sea fishing is conc erned, the British fisheries are possibly the most highly organised in the world, with the possible single exception of Japan. No country has so great a fleet of such large and powerful steam vessels for deep- sea fishing. On the other hand, the inland and freshwater fisheries are comparatively unimportant, with the exception of salmon which are still exploited commercially, especially in the rivers of Scotland and Ireland. River fishing in Britain is now mainly reserved for sport and recreation, whilst the waters of many a once-famous salmon or trout stream have become polluted and almost devoid of fish.

“Wet” fish, as distinct from shell-fish, fall into two main classes— pelagic and demersal. Pelagic fish, literally “ocean” fish, are those which live in the surface waters, feeding there on the immense numbers of plankton, or tiny organisms, the abundance or otherwise of which determines to a very large extent the size and the numbers of the fish. Pelagic fish tend to occur in large numbers or shoals, and by far the most important in the British fisheries is the herring. Others of importance are the pilchard and the mackerel. Although they are free swimming, these pelagic fish are by no means indep endent of the depth of the water or the character of the bottom, for they spawn on the floor of the sea. Demersal fish, known to the trade as “white” fish, are fish normally found feeding at the bottom of the sea, including both flat-fish such as plaice and sole as well as free-swimming fish such as cod and haddock. In pre-1914 years,

Number employed in fishing industry, 1921: England and Wales, 40,000; Scotland,
25,500. In 1931 the figures were 41,000 and 22,500. In 1951 36,882 fishermen were regularly employed and 5,039 occasionally employed in Great Britain. owing to the enormous importance of the herring, roughly equal quantities of pelagic and demersal fish were landed at ports in the British Isles, although the value of the demersal was roughly double that of the pelagic. In the inter-war years both the quantity and value of the demersal fish became relatively much greater than those of the pelagic. In recent years this trend has continued, so that the weight of demersal fish landed is three or four times that of pelagic. The attached table shows the quantity and value of the two main types of fish of British taking landed at ports in England and Wales in recent years. Demersal Pelagic Total wet fish

fishing landed in UK 1925 - 1951 Although the fishing grounds visited by British vessels and from which fish are landed at British ports extend from Greenland, Iceland, Bear Island, and Spitsbergefl on the north to Morocco on the south, and from the Barents Sea on the east to the west of Scotland, Rockall, and the south-west of Ireland, it is the character of the Continental shelf surrounding the British Isles themselves which must be regarded as in the main responsible for the rise to importance of the British fishing industry. The weight of the fish landed in Britain caught by the trawl, which can only be used in shallow water, has increased from about two-thirds in the inter-war years to over 87 per cent. in 1951. There is no trawling at a greater depththan 250 fathoms, that is 1,500 feet, and very little at a greater depth than 200 fathoms, or 1,200 feet, whilst a great deal of the trawling is carried out in water very much shallower than this. It will, therefore, be an advantage to study the submarine contours round the British Isles and to see what limits these place on the possible fishing grounds. It will be seen that the British Isles rest on a broad Continental shelf and are entirely surrounded by shallow water, as are Iceland, the Faeroes, and Rockall.1 The North Sea,
1 See A. H. W. Robinson “The Floor of the British Seas,” Scot. Geog. Mag.,
68, 1952, 64—79.

except for a deep channel off the coast of Norway, is everywhere less than 100 fathoms in depth. The northern part is 40—100 fathoms, but the southern half is everywhere less than 50 fathoms, or 300 feet. There is thus in the North Sea, on the whole, a gradual decrease in depth from north to south; but this gradual shallowing is interrupted by numerous banks and deeper depressions called pits. The largest and most important of the banks is the well-known Dogger Bank, which, with an area of something like 7,000 square miles, is covered by water only 10—20 fathoms deep. Not only do these shallow seas with their sandy or rock-free floors afford excellent fishing grounds where the trawl net can be used to the greatest advantage, but they also provide spawning and breeding grounds which are obviously essential to the maintenance of the supply of fish. Further, there is that absence of stagnation and monotony of conditions which might prove fatal. There are the movement of the tides round the British Isles and the warm drift of water from the North Atlantic drift, the seasonal variations in temperature, salinity, and the character of the bottom deposits which give the necessary variation of conditions for the different species of fish or to the same species of fish at different stages of development. The fish must depend ultimately for their supply of food on plankton. Plankton consist of (a) minute plants, particularly diatoms and algae, which, like land plants, are capable under the influence of light of transforming inorganic substances into organic material, thus rendering it available as fish food, tog ether with (b) enormous numbers of small sea animals, such as small crustacea, hydrozoa, foraminifera, niollusca, etc., whilst together with the whole mass are huge quantities of the spawn of demersal fish. Indeed, it is the spawn of the demersal fish which suffer particularly from a paucity of plankton foodstuffs. A paucity of plankton means a heavy mortality amongst fish spawn, the effect of which will not be felt as far as the fisheries are concerned until some years later.
A map has been included to show the main fishing grounds from which landings of fish are provided for British ports. Each fishing boat, on arriving in port, is compelled to declare not only the type of fish caught but the area from which the fish has been obtained. For purposes of classification the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has distinguished somewhat arbitrarily the fishing grounds which are marked on the map. As might be thought, easily the most important area is the North Sea, followed by the very important Iceland and Faeroes area, then by the distant grounds of the Barents Sea, Norwegian coasts, Bear Island, and Spitzbergen. The major change of recent years has been the increased importance of northern waters, including Greenland. Before examining the characteristic fish found in each of these areas it will be necessary to analyse the different types of fish landed.
fishing grounds used by uk fishermen map

Fio. 132.—The main Fishing Grounds used by British fishermen Depths are shown lii metres (except the Dogger Bank)
1 Barents Sea and Murmars Coast.
2a Norwegian Coast.
2b Bear Island and Spitzbergen.
3 Skagerak, Belts and Baltic.
4 North Sea. 5a Iceland.
5b Faroc.
6a West of Scotland.
6b Rockall.
7a Irish Sea.
7b—c West of Ireland.
7d-e English Channel.
7f Bristol Channel.
7g—k South and South West of Ireland.
8a S. Brittany.
8b French Biscay.
8c Spanish Biscay.
8d Biscay Deepwater.
8e West of Biscay.
9a Coast of Portugal.
9b West of Portuguese Coast.
lOa Moroccan coast.
lob Madeira.
14 East Coast of Greenland.
15 West Coast of Greenland.
eco label Environmental Consultants
 
herring fishing historic old

This table (missing) is at first very surprising, because it illustrates the fact that the fish which are most popular and best known on the British table or in British restaurants are actually landed in comparatively small quantities. This is partly because of the very large quantities of herring and cod and certain other fish which are absorbed by the export trade. Many of the fish with less familiar names are utilised by fried fish shops.


Returning now to the map of British fisheries we find that, taking the fish mentioned in the above table in order, they have certain characteristic features of distribution. The herring is characterist ically, one might say exclusively, a North Sea fish. With the except ion of the English Channel, southern Ireland, and the Bristol Chann el, landings from other areas are small. Of other pelagic fish the once important pilchard almost disappeared but has been coming back. It is and always has been essentially a fish of the south-west of England, of the western part of the English Channel, and of the south of Ireland. The mackerel is again a southern fish, particul arly important in the English Channel and the Bristol Channel. The sprat is another pelagic fish.


Turning to demersal fish, the cod is, of course, primarily a fish of cold northern waters. It accounts for about half the total landings of demersal fish, a large proportion from distant northern fisheries, and the quantity decreases as one comes southwards. The haddock is the predominant catch in the northern, deeper part of the North Sea. Halibut is still more a northern type, the really large catches being mainly restricted to Icelandic and other northern waters. Hake is unimportant in the North Sea but is the chief fish of the south-western area in the relatively deep trawling ground to the south of Ireland. Skate and sole are likewise the fish of the western side of England. Of the better-known flat-fish the plaice has the widest range. Landings from the far-distant Barents Sea area are important, but the popularity of the fish has given rise to anxiety because of the decrease in quantities which have been found in the northern sea. The plaice and still more the sole are really the reason for the operation of British vessels in the more distant fisheries. The lemon sole and the widely appreciated turbot have never formed large percentages of the total landings. It should be noted that the more distant fishing grounds of Greenland, the White Sea, Barents Sea, Bear Island, and Spitzbergen represent a round trip of more than 3,000 miles from Grimsby.

historic fish market Within the last half-century the British fishing industry has underg one a complete change. This may be summed up in the two words “centralisation” and “industrialisation.” It is a commonplace of history that the British fishing grounds form a nursery for the seamen of both our Navy and our Merchant Navy. Almost every cove on the rock-girt coast of the west has its little break-water, its little quota of fishing-vessels, and, nestling in the sheltered valley behind, a little fishing village. The same is true of the sandy estuaries and coves along the eastern coast. In the days of the Armada these fishing villages provided the bulk of the sailors for the British Navy. The little old town of Fowey in Cornwall is proud of having provided no less than 47 ships for Edward III’s navy for the siege of Calais, compared with London’s 25. Less than 5 per cent. of the fish no landed in the British Isles is landed at these small old fishing villages. Some of them, such as St. Ives, Mevagissey, or, to use its popular local name, “Fishygissy,” and Brixham, choosing examples from the south-western peninsula, have done their utmost to fight the uneven fight against the octopus of the large railway fishing port. Others have discovered that there is a market value in picturesquen ess and have come to rely for much of their revenue on their summer visitors. The fisherman hires out his boats for the summer months, while his wife provides board and lodging for the visitors. But unless the visitor’s own skill is above the average he probably and move with the buoy or ship under the influence of wind and tide. The net is arranged to intercept fish of the right size which attempt to pass through and are caught by the gills. Thus drift-nets are of different gauge according to the fish it is proposed to catch. Those for herring have an inch mesh, a smaller size are the drift-nets used for catching sprats, while drift-nets of a larger size are used elsew here for catching salmon. A few wooden drifters are still in existence, but the majority are of steel. Drifters are not large and for long the majority in Britain were about the same size, having a gross tonnage of 95 and a length of 85 feet, and a beam of l8 feet, carrying a crew of seven men and a boy.
finds that his stay at the seaside is marred by an absence of “fresh fish on the table.” It is the advent of the steam trawler and the steam drifter which is in the main responsible for the great change.
The majority of the herrings and other pelagic fish are caught from the drifters and the majority of demersal or white fish from the trawlers. The drift-net carried by the drifters is lightly and strongly made of cotton, and each net measures from 50 to 60 yards long and about 13 yards deep, but the nets are used in a “fleet” or series, so that sometimes as many as eighty are employed at one time in one vessel, to form an extended wall of netting hanging perpendicularly in the water. There is a headline kept floating on the surface by a series of buoys or “pellets,” and the top of the net is usually about three yards below the surface, being connected with the headline by a series of ropes called strops. The net or nets are attached to the floating buoy or to the drifting ship itself, hence the name “drifter,”
1950s fishing trawler


The most important method of fishing demersal fish is by trawling. In 1951 87 per cent. of all fish landed in the United Kingdom by British fishing vessels was caught by trawlers. The trawl-net is a bag-shaped net, the mouth of which is kept open either by a beam across the head or by pressure of the water upon wooden kites known as trawl-boards, or trawl doors, attached to the net. The beam-trawl is still used but only on fishing smacks and small vessels. The ordinary modern trawl-net is towed about 200 yards astern; the trawl runs along the sea bed where the fish feed. Wooden or metal “bobbins” are attached to the lower part of the mouth and act as wheels, enabling the trawl to be pulled more readily and with less damage over rock etc.

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