Commercial fishing has a long tradition around Britain’s coasts, providing livelihoods to sea-faring communities from Looe to Lerwick for centuries.
Britain was ideally placed for the development of a large-scale industry, with seas of moderate depth, readily fished for herring, haddock, cod and pilchard by a large fleet of small vessels.
On 3 October 1908, the Times reported that the drifter Holly established a record for the season by landing 250,000 herrings from a single night’s fishing, valued then at about £240. By 1914, fishing was a large scale, capital intensive industry, supplying a large domestic market and exporting overseas.
The Second World War interrupted routine commercial fishing in Britain and arguably marks the point at which the British fishing industry began its long term decline. When fishing resumed after the war, herring was no longer the dominant species among the catch, and white fish became the mainstay; in 1948, herring comprised 25% of wet fish landed, compared with almost 50% 20 years before. By this point, the majority of herring was being caught by Scottish vessels, better placed to make the treacherous journey towards the Arctic Circle, where stocks remained plentiful.
In one night’s fishing, it was reported that Peterhead boats had landed 4m herrings. The drifter Daisy had the top catch, its crew of 10 getting about £400 for a night’s work.
Where herring went, other fish followed, and stocks of North Sea cod and haddock fell rapidly after the War, with technological advances on boats concealing the true extent of the decline. Today, the challenge is to balance the needs of fishermen with the demands of conservation so depleted stocks do not wipe out the industry entirely. Since 1983, fishermen have been bound by controversial quotas imposed by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, in an effort to protect declining stocks.
Hard of herring. This chart shows landings of wet fish, i.e. excluding shellfish. Note: From 1988, data on landings has been published in liveweight equivalent. Figures to 1990 are landings into Great Britain by British vessels. Figures from 1990 are landings into Great Britain by UK vessels.
The number of regular and part-time fishermen has fallen from 47,000 in 1938 to 12,000 today, and landings in 2010 were a quarter what they were before the War. But despite its declining economic significance, fishing still accounts for up to 40% of employment in some communities, such as Fraserburgh and Peterhead, where alternative opportunities are limited.
Scarcity has pushed up prices, turning seafood that was once consumed predominantly by the poor, such as oysters, into a luxury. Rising quayside prices have also made fish farming in inshore waters more viable and since the 1970s this has become an increasingly important source of supply and export earnings.