I’ve just read a pretty interesting article on the BBC website about the decline in fish stocks in the seas around the Britsh isles.
The history of fishing combines two of my interests – history, and fishing (funnily enough!). I’ve did some research on fishing in Portsmouth in the Eighteenth Century for a presentation at Uni, and I have spent many an hour sat on the local beaches. And it doesnt take a genius to work out that there are a LOT less fish in British waters than years ago.
Apparently the researchers for this study looked at data from the late 19th Century onwards. FOUR times as many fish were being landed 100 hundred years ago as are today, with catches peaking in 1938. The Victorians were obsessive about setting up various inspectorates, committees and the like, and in the 1880’s the Government appointed fishery inspectors in large fishing ports to report on catches being landed. Not only did this give the Victorians a very accurate picture of their fishing industry, it also gives us some brilliant data to look back and compare with.
Stocks of fish such as Halibut, Turbot, Haddock and Plaice are severely depleted, largely caused by prolonged intensive trawling of the seabed. Aside from taking fish out of the sea, this also wrecks the seabed, and doesnt give it time to recover.
One of the major findings of the report, however, is that it takes seventeen times more effort to catch the same amount of fish that were being caught in the 1880’s. This really is ironic – technological changes and the move from sail to engine power meant that boats could fish in all weathers. As catches rose but then fell, boats could go further offshore. This in turn depleted offshore stocks too. And hence fishermen have to work that much harder to catch the fewer fish in the seas.
Reaction from the fishing industry has been predictably dismissive. The so-called expert in the BBC article who called the use of historical data ‘old news’ really is missing the point. Long term trends do not lie. Low fish stocks undoubtedly stem from poor fisheries management, whether it be from Europe, the UK Government or more locally.
Historically, the importance of fishing to Portsmouth has been overlooked. Granted, Portsmouth has never been anywhere near the same league as Hull or Grimsby, but all the same, throughout history fishing has ben an important part of Portsmouth’s economy. As early as 1710 local documents refer to turbot, brill, cod, whiting, bass, mullet, sole, plaice dab and flounder in local waters. Mackerel abounded off of Hayling Island. Records show that in 1725 an Emsworth fisherman sold 48lbs of bass and mullet to a Gosport sailor at 4d. per pound. Fish was sold in the High Street, where stone cooling slabs were fitted in the public market. And during the late Eighteenth there was a short-lived attempt to set up a local Fishery company, with a whole range of local people as shareholders – merchants, businessmen, councilors and aldermen, Admirals, Dockyard officials, and even the Governor (1).
It would not take a genius to work out that fish stocks have declined dramatically. In the twenty-first century, no-one could claim that the Solent is ‘teeming’ with fish, as they did in the Eighteenth Cetury. I can think of a few local examples. The Flounder fishing in Langstone and Portsmouth Harbours has been decimated by fishermen taking them for pot bait. But when theres no more Flounder left, what then? By the same token, the Bass Nursery areas have been a real success. Also the local Smoothound fishing has been brilliant, largely due to Anglers returning fish alive, and that the Smoothound is not a particuarly good eating fish.
These facts surely tell a story, much like the historical data.
(1) Information in this section is taken from James H. Thomas, The Seaborne Trade of Portsmouth 1650-1800, Portsmouth Paper 40, Published by Portsmouth City Council (1984).