Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Our sea fisheries

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After being made the subject of several scientific essays—which may have deserved more attention than they obtained—the declining productiveness of our sea fisheries has been taken up by those to whose warnings every one will listen. The fishermen of Northumberland and Durham have recently held large meetings upon the subject, and are unanimous in condemning the practice of trawling, as the main cause of the scarcity of fish. It is well for a class when the grievance of which they complain affects, as this does, the whole community; and not as an article of food only, but also as an important item in the national trade. It has been suggested by irreverent foreigners, that the English people are nowhere more sensitive than in their stomachs and in their breeches pockets: and certainly both are concerned in the complaints of the north-country fishermen.

But we must not too hastily take their word as to the cause of the deficiency. We will admit that by far too little attention has been given to this important matter. Our fish-producing mines of wealth are out of sight, and therefore they have been too much out of mind. It has not been sufficiently considered to what a large extent fish has become the food of the people. Listening to stories of “schools” of mackerel innumerable—to accounts of the extraordinary reproductive powers of the herring, and of the marvellous fecundity of the cod and other fish—we have too readily supposed that the supply was practically inexhaustible. This happy idea must, however, be rudely dispelled. There are inexorable facts, which are proof to the contrary even more logical than the evidence of a herring’s roe.

There was indeed some ground for the delusion. When naturalists discovered, from careful calculations, that the ova of a single codfish amount to four millions, and that the roe of herrings and the spawn of flat-fish exhibit similar powers of reproduction, it would seem that we might well be careless as to the mode adopted for obtaining our supplies. But nothing is more certain than that this estimate gives a very delusive notion of the actual increase of fishes. Yet even this disappointment should not disturb our conviction that “whatever is, is right.” For, if all the fish that swim could bring to life all the eggs they deposit—and if the produce of these were to continue the work of propagation in the same manner—we should find the sea gradually rising above our shores, and the dominion of the world slowly but surely passing to the fish themselves. But their natural enemies will prevent such an undesirable state of things.

We know but little, far too little, of the life and habits of sea fish; and therefore we can only speculate upon their actual rate of reproduction. But we have already learned that fish are not migratory. The codfish is faithful to his bank, the oyster to his bed, and the herring to his bay. This is proved by the different marks by which fish are known as coming from certain localities. Fishermen know a Doggerbank cod from one caught on the coast of Newfoundland; a Tay salmon is easily distinguishable from one taken in the Tweed; and herrings also have their local peculiarities. They are not always to be met with in one place; indeed there is no doubt that at spawning time they come in nearer to the shore in order to deposit their eggs in shallow water. This latter fact discloses the ground of complaint which the fishermen who use the drift-net to take herrings have against the trawlers, who rake the seashores in their endeavours to catch the flat-fish tribe, and indeed whatever comes into their net: for a trawl is an omnium gatherum, and takes everything that is not strong enough to break its meshes. The cod and herring fishers say that these trawl-nets destroy the spawn of the fish by breaking it up, and also by raking the stones and mud over it. The consciences of the trawlers must smite them with the truth of this statement. They know how laboriously they traverse the shores, just in such places as the fish would choose to deposit their eggs. But it should be remembered that trawling is not a common practice on the herring grounds, nor upon the cod-banks; and therefore, though we do not dispute the facts stated by the unlucky fishermen of the north, we cannot entirely accept their argument.

Perhaps it would not be deemed an insult by the majority of our readers, if we inform them that while codfish are generally taken with long lines armed with hundreds and sometimes with thousands of hooks, herrings are caught with nets suspended in the sea by bladders which drift along between the herring-boats. The open meshes are the herrings’ trap, in which those that are caught get hung by their gills. Some idea of the importance of the herring trade may be gathered from the fact that nearly ten years ago it furnished employment for 10,974 boats, 41,045 seamen, and 81,934,330 square yards of netting. It is subject to government inspection, and the barrels, containing on an average 850 fish, are packed under careful supervision. At Wick, the metropolis of the trade, there are during the season a thousand boats at work, and not unfrequently from twenty to thirty thousand barrels of herrings are cured there in a single day. Large exportations are made to the ports of Germany and Holland. But we must not forget our own share in the consumption. London is fed with an annual meal of 2,100,000 fresh herrings, with about double that number of bloaters, and with 60,000,000 red herrings. When to this demand are added sprats to the value of 150,000l., one hundred millions of soles (to say nothing of the smaller fry), five hundred millions of oysters, and all the codfish we can get, it will be seen that London is not without an important interest in the sea-fisheries of the country.

In giving judgment in the case of the northern fishermen, we feel the great need which exists for a larger knowledge of the natural history of fishes. The men engaged in the fisheries know nothing of it whatever. They will tell you, perhaps, that when the gulls are perched upon the high rocks, the herrings are far from land, and when these birds hover about the shore, that the fish are not a long distance off. Such rude wisdom as this is the extent of their fish lore. But they are reliable witnesses as to the falling-off in the produce of the fisheries. And there are not wanting facts to confirm their assertions. It appears from the published returns, that during the year 1861 the average take of 1100 boats engaged in the herring fishery amounted to 81 “crans” of 42 gallons each; whereas in 1820, 604 boats, with probably not more than one-third of the netting used in the former period, averaged a take of 148 “crans.” Last year’s catch was very short of an average, but fully supports the evidence of this statement.

And the same diminishing return for labour is observable in the capture of cod and other “white fish.” Time was when upon our coasts a short line furnished with a score of hooks was tackle sufficient to capture a freight of a few thousand fish. Formerly it was considered that 800 hooks would take about 750 fish. Now, a line carrying as many as 4000 hooks sometimes does not take more than four score of fish. The same story comes from the Doggerbank, and from the cod-banks of Newfoundland, establishing the fact, that with all the improvements of tackle and boats, the fisheries are less productive than formerly.

It is much easier to point to the cause of this than to suggest the proper remedy. The railways have excited “over-fishing” by giving the means of carrying fresh fish to every town and village throughout the kingdom. An enormous “take” no longer depresses the price to a manuring value, for panting locomotives are ready to rush with it in every direction. The supply has made every effort to keep pace with the demand; and, so far as men and boats and tackle are concerned, it would have done so. But now the commodity itself is falling off, and the amount of ignorance prevailing upon the subject is so great, that no one knows for certain whether we are not eating our goose as well as her golden eggs. No one has yet ventured to decide the claim of the sprat to exemption from our service on the ground that he is a young herring. No one knows at what age a codfish assumes the honours of maturity, or, indeed, what is the time required to bring any of the “white fish” to maturity. As both codfish and herrings seek the shores in spawning time, it is more than likely that we catch them at the very time when we ought to leave them busily engaged in reproduction. The common assumption under which the fishery is at present conducted seems to be that there always were and always will be “as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it.” In future we must act with greater wisdom than this. It is not fair to lay all the blame upon the poor trawlers. They only follow the general opinion, that everything is fair in fishing. It will be necessary for us to obtain a more accurate knowledge of the natural history of fishes. Then we shall quickly learn that there is a proper time for catching fish as well as for all things, and the rest will follow in due course. We can wait for our soles until there is no fear of the trawl-nets disturbing the spawn. And then we shall be in no danger of taking codfish, mackerel, or herrings at a time when they are multiplying themselves for our advantage.

R. A. A.