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Demersal fishery pre-1950

Another type of fishing gear that was to increase in importance throughout the 19th century was the demersal beam trawl. To begin with the trawls were dragged by small local sailing vessels in the Clyde[i], and were therefore restricted to ‘clean’ ground and favourable weather conditions. By the 1880’s, the local sailing vessels worked almost everywhere in the lower reaches of the Clyde, where good catches of fish such as cod, dabs, flounder, lemon soles and turbot could be taken28. At this time, the advent of steam power brought larger steam trawlers into the area, mostly boats from England28.

By the late 19th century, declines were witnessed in many inshore areas around European coasts, with fishers forced to travel further to keep up the supplies of fish21. Within the Clyde area, numerous petitions were sent in favour of restricting trawling to certain areas, resulting in an enquiry by the Fishery Board as to whether trawling resulted in a decline in fish stocks25.

This was not the first enquiry to take place regarding beam trawling. A Royal Commission was established in 1866 in response to concerns about trawling and seine nets in fishing grounds, but no problems were proved at this point, and the Commission even repealed all regulations upon fishing in the open sea, saying,

Beam trawling in the open sea is not a wastefully destructive mode of fishing, but is one of the most copious and regular sources of the supply of eminently wholesome and nutritious fish. Any restriction upon this mode of fishing would be equivalent to a diminution of the supply of food to the people; while there is no reason to expect present or future benefit from that restriction25.

Further Royal Commissions in 1878 and 1885 failed to find any evidence of declines in fish because of a lack of statistics35. However, by 1887, the enquiry by the Fishery Board of Scotland came to the conclusion that beam trawlers did damage other fishers’ gear, and that the decrease of fish in territorial waters meant that restrictions would have to be imposed:

It is everywhere alleged that the territorial waters have been overfished, but in the absence of statistics it is impossible in the meantime to arrive at any definite conclusion on the subject. That there is no general exhaustion of the inshore and offshore waters around the coast may be inferred from the fact that nearly double the quantity of round fish (exclusive of herring) was landed in 1887 than in 1882, and that at Stonehaven and other centres, where trawling is not prohibited by the bye-laws, more fish were landed in 1887 than in former years […]. It may afterwards be shown, however, that inshore grounds can be exhausted by either line or beam trawl fishermen, the rate and extent depending on the number and size of boats fishing25.

The enquiry conducted by the Fishery Board of Scotland was able to show the extent of ill-feeling about the more efficient and damaging methods of fishing that were increasing in extent. Yet to maintain a competitive edge, it was necessary that fishers continued to increase their efforts…

It appears that so long as one man fishes in the day-time all must follow, if only in self-defence22.

The mode of fishing adopted by the fishermen belonging to this district at the Ballantrae fishing is the circle net, and from repeated conversations I have had with them, they appear to be of opinion that this mode of fishing is injurious, especially during the spawning season, and in consequence of this they would willingly abstain from going to the Ballantrae fishing if fishermen from other districts would also abstain from going. They firmly believe that beam trawling in any part of the Firth of Clyde is injurious, and are desirous that this mode of fishing should be prohibited[ii].

Many fishers interviewed in 1887 were convinced that beam trawling was causing a decrease in the abundance and size of fish throughout the Firth of Clyde, because of the extent of fishing, the large bycatch of young fish and the disturbance of fishing grounds[iii]. Some of the fishers had worked in the Clyde area for 40 years and more, and witnessed the evolution of the trawler and seine net, and the consequent destruction of small fish.

J. Wason was interviewed in 1887, stating, some fishermen present had seen the small fish shovelled overboard, and immense quantities of spawn also shovelled overboard30.

A. Campbell was a boat-owner, and was interviewed in the same year, saying,…if beam trawling is allowed to go on unchecked, the chief fishing banks in the Clyde (already greatly exhausted) will soon be so destroyed that for many years the yield will not meet the working expenses[iv].

W. Hannah had been a fisher for 40 years by 1887, and when questioned about beam trawling he described the discarding practises he had seen, as well as the decrease in abundances of fish,

He had witnessed trawl being hauled, the catch consisting of dog-fish, skate, &c., and a great amount of small fish, rowds (gurnots), turbot, flounders, and others. There were more small than big fish, and they were usually thrown overboard17.

The supply of fish has been diminishing during the last 10 or 12 years, only 10 turbot being got now instead of from 40 to 80 got 15 years ago17.

A District Fishery Officer, W. Bain was also interviewed by J.C. Ewart and collegues in 1887, and made it clear regarding his views about the destructiveness of beam trawling - At the tail of the bank, in particular, the takes have fallen off very much of late, and the fish now got are generally very much smaller in size than formerly, and altogether the aspect of things appear to indicate that beam trawling has injured this fishery very considerably[v].

By the 1880’s fishing boats were undergoing a transformation. The small, undecked, uncomfortable boats were being replaced by larger decked boats that could travel further out to sea and carry larger amounts of fish[vi]. Although the beam trawl was viewed with much concern by many in the fishing community, its use continued to grow until the larger and more efficient otter trawl came into use in 189533. The otter trawl with its broader sweep was able to capture more fish than the beam trawl, and despite being introduced only in 1895, within a year almost all trawlers in the Scottish fleet had adapted them[vii].

 

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[i] Ewart, J.C (1888). Appendix E: Further report as to the influence of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Clyde estuary. Ewart, J.C., Maitland, J.R.G., Boyd, W. and Johnston, J (1888). Fishery Board for Scotland: report of a committee of the Fishery Board for Scotland as to the regulation of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Territorial Waters. Edinburgh, UK.

[ii] Henry, R (1887). District Fishery Officer for Campbeltown. Appendix (A). In, Maitland, J.R.G. and Ewart, J.C (1888). Appendix A: Preliminary report and evidence taken by Sir James Maitland and Professor Ewart as to the influence of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Clyde estuary. In, Ewart, J.C., Maitland, J.R.G., Boyd, W. and Johnston, J (1888). Fishery Board for Scotland: report of a committee of the Fishery Board for Scotland as to the regulation of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Territorial Waters. Edinburgh, UK.

[iii] Wason, J (1887). Postmaster. Appendix B: Notes of evidence taken before the committee of the fishery board for Scotland at Girvan, 29th December 1887. In, Ewart, J.C., Maitland, J.R.G., Boyd, W. and Johnston, J (1888). Fishery Board for Scotland: report of a committee of the Fishery Board for Scotland as to the regulation of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Territorial Waters. Edinburgh, UK.

[iv] Campbell, A (1887). Boat-owner and rope manufacturer. Appendix (B). In, Maitland, J.R.G. and Ewart, J.C (1888). Appendix A: Preliminary report and evidence taken by Sir James Maitland and Professor Ewart as to the influence of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Clyde estuary. In, Ewart, J.C., Maitland, J.R.G., Boyd, W. and Johnston, J (1888). Fishery Board for Scotland: report of a committee of the Fishery Board for Scotland as to the regulation of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Territorial Waters. Edinburgh, UK.

[v] Bain, W (1887). District Fishery Officer for Greenock. Appendix (A). In, Maitland, J.R.G. and Ewart, J.C (1888). Appendix A: Preliminary report and evidence taken by Sir James Maitland and Professor Ewart as to the influence of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Clyde estuary. In, Ewart, J.C., Maitland, J.R.G., Boyd, W. and Johnston, J (1888). Fishery Board for Scotland: report of a committee of the Fishery Board for Scotland as to the regulation of trawling and other modes of fishing in the Territorial Waters. Edinburgh, UK.

[vi] Jones, D.T (1919). Appendix 1: Post-war problems. In, Sutherland, A., MacKenzie, W.L., Thomson, D.W., Breadalbane., Archibald, J., Irvin, J.H., Smith, M. and Jones, D.T (1919). Thirty-seventh Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland, being for the year 1918. Edinburgh, UK.

[vii] Sutherland, A., Crawford, D., Murray, J., Welch, J.R., Duguid, W.R., Jameson, A. and Robertson, W.C (1897). Fifteenth Annual Report of the Fishery Board for Scotland, being for the year 1896. Edinburgh, UK.

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