Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/April 1893/Conservation of the Mackerel Supply

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1198759Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 April 1893 — Conservation of the Mackerel Supply1893Robert F. Walsh



During the past few years there has been a serious scarcity of mackerel off the northern Atlantic coast, or rather the fishermen have been unable to capture such large numbers of this fish as had been their custom in former years. This falling off in the mackerel "catch" has a marked effect upon the fish-food supply of our markets. Scarcity of any commodity tends to increase the prices of articles which are used for similar purposes; hence, not only has mackerel become a fish of luxury—because of its scarcity—but the prices of most other fishes have been advanced correctively with the decrease in the general fish supply caused by the partial failure of the mackerel fishing during the past few years.

Recognizing this, the United States Fishery Commissioners inquired into the subject, but arrived at no definite conclusions, either with regard to the causes of this scarcity of mackerel, or as to how the supply could be increased to the former standard. However, some enterprising owners of fishing schooners having a knowledge of the enormous "banks" of mackerel that frequent the southern Irish coast at certain seasons, equipped their vessels for the ocean voyage and sent them across the Atlantic to fish for mackerel in Irish waters. In the matter of capturing large quantities of fish—superior to that which is caught in the western Atlantic—they were successful; but the question is undecided as to whether or not a continuance of the experiment would be financially judicious.

To my mind it seems clear that the sending of vessels to the Irish coast to capture fish for this market could not be profitably continued; but I believe that I can point out, not only the causes which led to the failure of the mackerel fishing upon this coast, but also show—from practical observation of the habits of mackerel and the methods of fishing for them—how the supply off the northern Atlantic coast could be readmitted.

The solution of such a problem as this can not be arrived at by any theoretical examination of the question. Study of the habits of the fishes, through centuries, and practical observation of their movements and instincts, can alone guide one in arriving at satisfactory conclusions. And, in order that my statements may receive due consideration, I think it not unwise to premise that at the Fisheries Exhibition in London, in 1883, I read a paper upon this subject before a special International Conference, and was awarded for it one of the few "grand diplomas of honor" which were conferred by the "commissioners appointed by her Majesty's Government."

I shall elucidate the subject of the causes of the apparent diminution in the mackerel supply off this coast by an example which will de facto point out how this fish can be readmitted as an economic sea product for our food supply; and in so doing I shall draw almost entirely from my research in the matter as contained in the paper to which I have referred.

About thirty years ago the mackerel fishery off the southern Irish coast was first (in this century) prosecuted as a great industry. Fishing vessels came there from Scotland, England, the Isle of Man, and from France, to reap the silvery harvest of the ocean; and the few rude native craft which then existed were rapidly multiplied into hundreds of beautiful yacht-like fishing vessels. For twenty years the mackerel fishing—which begins in March and continues until the end of June—prospered almost phenomenally, and many of the boat-owners and fishermen, both native and foreign, amassed comparative wealth, as did also the ship-builders and net and rope makers. The town of Kinsale, county of Cork, which is the headquarters of the industry, enjoyed a prosperity during those years strangely at variance with the decaying condition of other Irish towns; but in 1880 this great fishery was temporarily destroyed, through sheer ignorance of the habits and instincts of the mackerel, by the avarice of the boat-owners and fishermen of the Isle of Man.

It occurred in this way: All the fishermen of this great fleet—over one thousand fishing vessels, each carrying eight to ten men and more than two miles of netting—were aware that the mackerel came from the Atlantic, in the southwest and west, toward their spawning ground off the southern Irish coast at this season. But the Manx fishermen and owners were not satisfied with reaping a good harvest from March to June. The fish fetches a much larger price early in the season, and they decided that they would "try" for them farther west than the usual fishing ground, before the season opened off Kinsale and Baltimore. The result was disastrous. For two years the "early boats" succeeded well; but in the third year the entire mackerel fishing along the coast was a failure, and it was not until May and early in June that good catches were made off the "grounds" outside Kinsale. Then the price was low, as the fish was too full of roe, or "spent" after spawning, to be shipped to foreign markets in good condition, and one after another the boat-owners and fishermen and merchants fell before the unprosperous wave. The fact of the mackerel not turning up until late in the season caused sore distress among the eight or ten thousand persons engaged in the industry; but it had one good effect—it stopped the too early fishing; and now, after eight years of failure, prosperity is again beginning to dawn upon the southern Irish fisheries.

It must be obvious to the most ordinary reader that the cause which led to this temporary failure was the too early interception of the mackerel while on the way to their spawning ground. Why this should be, I shall explain more interestingly; for in elucidating the subject I shall have to call attention to the peculiar habits and instincts of the mackerel, which, upon the authority of early official documents, we learn were suspected, if not known, by the fishermen of the south of Ireland more than two centuries ago.

When alluding to the instinct of the mackerel I did so in a manner that might possibly lead a reader to suppose that they possess the same unreasoning prompting to action that do all animals, whether it be that that instinct warns them of danger, safety, or the presence or propinquity of food or pleasurable object. But there is one all-important factor of common instinct which is partially absent in the mackerel—viz., danger; for, although when they are interrupted on the way to their spawning ground they avoid the place where their shoals were broken—oftentimes for many years—and execute the arc of a circle around the danger spot on their succeeding journeys to the spawning ground, it is a most curious fact that when close to their haunts they swim blindly and without any apparent unreasoning prompting or instinct of danger onward, nor do they struggle to free themselves from the meshes of the net as do all other fishes.

There can be no doubt whatever about this absence, or rather partial absence, of the instinct of danger in the mackerel.

Another peculiar trait of this member of the Salmonidæ family is that mackerel do not feed upon their own young as do most other fishes; and often, in the autumn, when the "harvest mackerel" (a smaller species than the "season" mackerel, and usually, but erroneously, supposed to be all males) frequents the waters close to the shore, I have seen them rush wildly through a shoal of sprats or brit, with which young mackerel often swim, devouring them upon all sides, but studiously avoiding those of their own family. Indeed, the petite mackerelettes do not seem to be at all so alarmed as their companions, who spring out of the water in their terror and swim scatteringly in every direction. This, too, is undoubtedly instinct upon the part of both the juvenile mackerel and his larger brother. But that fact does not importantly concern the purpose of this article.

I have shown that they possess instinct of both a perfect and imperfect order, and I have proved that, because of the interception of the shoals while on their way to the spawning ground in the spring, they abandon their usual course and travel perhaps hundreds of miles in a semicircle to reach the haunts where the roe is deposited. Of course, I have given only one example, and that one which came under my own observation during the years from 1880 to 1892; but I shall now go back more than two hundred years and add to my personal knowledge the experience of the fishermen of that time, as recorded in the Annals of Kinsale, which old manuscripts I had the very great pleasure and privilege of being allowed to make a thorough examination of in 1882 and 1883.

Even in recent years, here, as well as in Ireland, the fish savants sought to place the cause of the scarcity of mackerel at every door but the correct one. One man would say, "They are being overfished"; another, "They are most uncertain in their comings and goings, and have no fixed or permanent haunts or spawning grounds"; and yet a third would advance the theory (for, mind you, all these men are simply theorists in the science of ichthyology) that "mackerel only frequent certain localities on the coast at irregular periods."

All three theories are wrong; and I shall prove that not only have they fixed spawning grounds and haunts, but that they have been known to frequent one "ground" for over two hundred years without the intermission of a season, and that it is only such accident as continued interception of their progress toward that ground too early in the season that prevents their being captured in large quantities in the same places and at the same time every year.

Early in the seventeenth century "enormous catches of pilchards, mackerel, and herring" were obtained off the southern Irish coast. At that time the mackerel season occurred precisely at the same time in each year as it does now, and the great spawning grounds were located then in exactly the same place as they are to-day. This of itself goes far to prove that the habits of mackerel, in this wise at all events, are practically unchangeable; but we must advance more particularly into the matter to arrive at a positive rock foundation for my statements. In the seventeenth century the native fishermen fished in open boats, "with rude and inadequate appliances." But then, too, a fleet of French fishing smacks came annually from Dieppe, Havre, Boulogne, and the many small villages and towns lying between these cities, to reap the mackerel harvest in the ocean outside Kinsale. These Frenchmen had fishing appliances much superior to those of the Irish. In fact, I demonstrated clearly in 1883 that the most improved modern inventions for the capture of mackerel are not importantly superior to the gear used by the French fishermen in Irish waters nearly three hundred years ago. And it is in this connection that the connecting link between the mackerel fisheries or mackerel habits and instincts of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries can be plainly demonstrated.

In September, 1675, the fishermen of Kinsale, smarting under the continued absence of mackerel "from their shore . . . until the harvest time" for two seasons, held a meeting at which it was concluded and resolved that "the enormous nets of the Frenchmen" broke the shoals "and the mackerel became frightened and sought other grounds." Thereupon they petitioned the king, through Secretary Burchard, . . . that "a fleet of three hundred sail of French have for many months, in this season, beleaguered our coast. They have nets, each of them half a league in length. And they fish four our mackerel and pilchards to such a degree that our nets can not catch any more." The petition then goes on to state that "in consequence of the great length of the nets" (of the Frenchmen) "the shoals are broken and the mackerel refuse to come again in that way." This petition was drawn up and signed in Kinsale in September, 1675, and it goes to prove that so far back as the seventeenth century the mackerel frequented the same "grounds" that they do to-day; and that for the same reason as they did in 1883, they resented the interference of the Frenchmen at a too early period in their migration toward the spawning ground and disappeared from the coast at this point. That they were captured late in the season is told in the following quotation, dated September 7, 1675: "Notwithstanding that the mackerel disappeared from this coast in the spring, because of the depredations of the French, they have turned up again in enormous numbers and fat at their old haunts outside the Old Head to the westward."

This proves my original statement that mackerel have a distinct and permanent spawning ground; and it is a strong weapon in my assertion that want of knowledge of the habits of the fish is solely responsible for its scarcity either in this or in the Irish market.

But it is needless to prolong this argument. It is established without question that the habits and instincts of mackerel are the same that they were three hundred years ago, and that during all these years they sought the same spawning grounds and resented interference with their progress toward them by making a detour. In this detour lies the secret of the erroneous idea that "the mackerel are leaving the coast." They are not. They will reach their spawning grounds, no matter how far they swim; and, when they are near to them, nets, of whatever construction, can not deter their progress.

The moral of this is simple. To me it is as plain as the sun at noon. It is this: If we wish to capture mackerel, we must do it in season. Nature sends them to us then, and we should profit by their approach; but we must not use unnatural methods or times to reap the harvest.

And now let us examine more particularly the bearing which this elucidation of the habits of the mackerel in the eastern Atlantic has upon the waning mackerel fisheries of the eastern American seaboard. Unfortunately, we have not the same specific data which are furnished in the Annals of Kinsale to compare the earlier conditions. In fact, we have no authentic records of mackerel fishing with nets earlier than the first decade of this century; and, as says Mr. R. Edward Earll, in his exhaustive report, it was not until 1826 that the New England mackerel fisheries were prosecuted with any appreciable success. Prof. Brown Goode and Captain Collins, of Gloucester, have also added most important contributions to the history of the mackerel off this coast; and, as all these efforts are contained in the official reports of the United States Commissioners of Fish and Fisheries, I shall confine my own observations within the limits of the official records of their research. The mackerel fishery off the New England coast extends from the northern end of the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod, and it has been ascertained that their spawning ground lies between the Shoals of Nantucket and the Bay of Fundy. A general fishing, however, is carried on from the shoals southward as far as the Chesapeake Bay. Mackerel were first fished for in these waters off the New England coast; and when, in 1870, the older appliances were discarded by the majority of the fishermen and the purse-seine adopted, enormous numbers were captured by the men who fished outside Gloucester. Discovering, however, that the fish could be captured earlier in the season farther south, the more enterprising among the fishermen tried the waters as far south as the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, and succeeded admirably for several seasons. Then, in 1878, the men who remained on the New England ground, and who continued to use the old appliances—drag and gill nets—discovered that the supply of mackerel was becoming irregular and smaller, and, believing that this scarcity and irregularity of the fish were caused by the use of the purse-seine, they protested against the use of that style of net in precisely the same manner as did the Irish fishermen petition against the "long nets of the French" in 1675.

The protest of the Gloucester men had no effect; the Southern fishery was continued uninterruptedly for several seasons more, and finally the mackerel seemed to have disappeared from the coast in the same manner as they did from the Irish coast from 1883 to 1892 during the spring season; and in the same manner also they reappear off their New England spawning grounds in the late summer. I omitted to state that the season mackerel is caught in American waters in the same months that they are in seaon off the Irish coast, viz., March to June. From this simple statement of the history of the New England and northern Atlantic mackerel fisheries, I believe that the most obtuse reader will deduct the fact that the apparent disappearance of that fish from our coast is solely due to the same causes which were observed and which I have explained concerning the Irish mackerel fisheries; and I believe, and I think it is apparent from what I have written, that, in order to conserve a bountiful supply of mackerel in these waters, they should not be intercepted on their way toward their spawning grounds, certainly not until they begin to appear off the Shoals of Nantucket.

The analogy between the errors of the fishermen and the habits and instincts of the mackerel, upon both sides of the Atlantic, will be seen to be curiously coincidental; and to my mind it seems clear that similar precautions would surely bring about similar results.

It is a clear case of judgment and patience. I should probably have said want of judgment; for want of judgment, seasoned by avarice, is the sole cause of the apparent disappearance of mackerel from this coast. The habits and instincts of the mackerel are practically unchangeable; and if our fishermen only study a little more the habits of the fishes, and accustom their expeditions to the necessities compelled by these natural sequences, our food supply—in the matter of mackerel or other fish—will not measurably diminish.