A fishing industry seeking a future.

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UK fishing industry.

The British have been fishing from their home waters since the Islands were inhabited.

In the 14th Century the British were fishing as far afield as within Icelandic waters, and where salting became the means of keeping fish fresh while being transported the long distance back to Britain.

The modern trawler was developed in the 19th century, at Brixham after the overfishing off South Devon resulted in further journeys out to sea.

The Brixham Trawler was fast enough to go to fishing grounds in the Atlantic and tough enough to tow large trawls in deep water, making large scale trawling in the ocean possible for the first time.

The Brixham trawler was produced and sold to fishermen around Europe, including he low countries and Scandinavia, while forming the nucleus of the German fishing fleet.

The small village of Grimsby grew to become the ‘largest fishing port in the world by the end of the 19th century. There were over 3,000 fishing trawlers in commission in Britain at the time, with a third of them working out of Grimsby alone.

Development & regulation of deep-sea fishing

Landed fish for market.

Demand for fish in Britain increased over the first 30 years of the 20th century.

Technological developments allowed British fishing boats to operate further afield and in ever-increasing numbers. By the turn of the 20th century, British trawlers were operating in Icelandic waters and by the 1920s Bear Island (North of Norway) was within reach.

Trawler designs were adapted to the change from from sail to coal-fired steam by World War I. The first steam fishing vessels were designed and made by David Allan in Leith in March 1875, when he converted a drifter to steam power.

In 1877, Allan built the first screw-propelled steam trawler in the world made of wooden construction, Pioneer LH854, which then led to fully steel hulls.

These were large boats, 80–90 feet (24–27 m) in length with a beam of around 20 feet (6.1 m), requiring a crew of only twelve, a skipper, a driver, a fireman (to operate the boiler) and nine deck hands. The trawlers fished with lines and drift nets.

These British innovations with their larger nets and holds created an industry trawling at greater depths and distances, with freedom from weather, wind and tide restrictions. In 1890 it was estimated that there were 20,000 men fishing on the North Sea, supporting the UK fishing industry.

The last sailing fishing trawler was built in 1925 in Grimsby.

In the early 20th Century, steamboats began delivering fish fresh at speed without the need for pre-salting. Combining with the vast UK rail network of the day, this created a booming new fresh fish industry for markets throughout the UK, creating employment and wealth for coastal communities.

The domestic fishing industry was so important that it caused migration of fishermen from the ports of the South of England, to villages in the North, such as Scarborough, Hull, Grimsby, and on the East Coast like Harwich, Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

The fishing grounds in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean becoming the most important for UK needs.

In 1925, Clarence Birdseye created the US company General Seafood Corporation. Here he developed his invention, a double belt freezer, which he went on to market successfully, and becoming an industry game changer. The frozen food industry had now been born.

Once fitted to sea going boats, the double belt freezer gave trawlers the ability to freeze it’s catch almost immediately after catch, and created the frozen food industry. A long-distance fleet could supply freshly frozen cod fillets to British consumers.

In 1931, the first powered drum was created by Laurie Jarelainen. The drum was a winch type, circular device that was set to the side of the boat and would draw in the nets much faster, opening fishing opportunities to more deeper, hostile waters.

By the early 1930s, the industry was facing severe difficulties. Prices declined, & the industry responded by producing more fish, with supply rapidly outstripping demand.

The overfishing led to the inevitable decline in North Sea stocks within a 20 years period, and so fishing had to be extended to much further afield, into deeper waters.

Government reactions to the over fishing practices, led to the Sea Fishing Industry Act of 1933 and the creation of the Sea Fisheries Commission, as it’s regulator. The Act restricted distant water catches in the summer and introduced regulations to prevent the catching of immature fish.


Fishing trawlers.

During WW2 trawler designs were adapted from coal-fired steam engines to diesel turbines.

Maritime equipment developed, becoming compact and accessible to fishermen. Radio navigation, communication, depth-sounding and radar fish location increased range and mobility of the fleet, increasing competitiveness.

Fisherman were forced to invest heavily in their boats.

The Navy commissioned trawlers as robust, all-weather boats with large clear working decks.

Mine sweepers were created by replacing the trawl with a mine sweep. Adding depth charge racks to the deck, ASDIC (Anti-Submarine Division project of the British Naval Staff) below, and either a 3-inch (76 mm) or 4-inch (102 mm) gun to the bows, equipped the trawler for anti-submarine duties in home waters.

Following the war, The Admiralty then sold those trawlers back to the UK commercial fishing industry, but the UK fishing fleet was dilapidated and out of date.

The post war / modern industry

Due to a lack of commercial fishing during the War, the North Sea stocks had begun to recover, but by 1947 catches were falling again and in November 1949 fish prices collapsed.

The UK government created the White Fish Authority to administer grants and loans to near and middle-water fishing fleets.

The herring industry also declined, and eventually collapsed due to the failure of the seasonal herring shoals sealing it’s demise.

The trawlers then headed for Northern waters within the Arctic Circle. Three weeks at sea and three days leave.

This decision required a huge investment in large ocean-going trawlers with sonar technology.

Trawlers by tradition, fished over the side, rather than at the stern. In 1947, Christian Salvesen of Leith refitted a surplus Algerine-class minesweeper (HMS Felicity) with refrigeration equipment and a factory ship stern ramp.

This development produced the first combined freezer/stern trawler – and probably the original Factory trawler.

Further developments produced the first purpose built stern trawler.

Built in 1953 at Aberdeen – the Fairtry, was larger than any other trawler in operation and, by pulling its nets over the stern, it could lift out a 60 ton load. The super trawler had arrived.

There was something of a revival of fish being a part of the British diet during the 1950’s. British distant-water catches peaked in 1956 at 8.5 million tons.

The revival was short lived though, and was followed by a period of gradual decline.

More technical developments effectively created competition within the UK industry.

In 1961, vertical plate freezers developed by the government’s Torry Research Station allowed ‘super trawlers’ to expand across the world. Fine synthetic fibres such as nylon in the construction of fishing nets during the 1960s, marked an expansion in the commercial use of gill-nets. New materials were cheaper and easier to handle, lasted longer and required less maintenance than natural fibres.

British fishing fleets now faced increased international competition. The industrialising USSR began to develop a fleet of industrial trawlers (disguising them during the Cold War to monitor the West, using covert electronics), which plundered the seas.

The Freedom of the high Seas.

National interest, Cod Wars, the UN and EU

The British distant-water fishing industry was based on the idea of freedom of the high seas, and the assumption that the sea was an open resource to be exploited.

In the post war world, and in the face of overfishing to feed our ever growing populations, this ancient idea disappeared into national interest, the machinations of the UN and then the control of the EU.

Until the 1960s, Britain remained a major player in long-distance trawling. By 1976, the industry had fallen into decline as the newly empowered governments of Iceland and Denmark denied access to their fishing grounds.

The Norwegian four-mile territorial limit

The UK has fished the waters of North Norway and Svalbard ever since it became practical. During the 1930s, the Norwegian government claimed a four-mile territorial limit and, after 1945, that was enforced.

When the Norwegians impounded a number of British trawlers, the British government took the case to the International Court of Justice, who found in found in favour of the Norwegians. The principle of local interests was established.

In the Northern Barents Sea In 1961, UK vessels caught 158,000 tonnes n 1961. In 2017 the UK landed 8,316 tonnes of fish from the northern part of the Norwegian zone, a quota obtained through the EU-Norway fishing agreement. The UK quota for cod for the Barents Sea is now just 14,336 tonnes.

Iceland, the 12-mile, 50 mile and 200 mile limits and Cod Wars

cod fishing

The first ‘Cod war’ took place in 1958, when Iceland, extended its coastal fishing limit, from 4 miles, to 12 miles.

Iceland’s concerns over the depletion of it’s off shore fish stocks along its own coastline came to a head in the mid 1950’s. Britain was forced to concede the four-mile limit following a decision by the Organisation of European Economic Co-operation in 1956.

In 1958 The United Nations (UN) held the International Conference on the Law of the Sea. Various nations made claims for extending the limit of territorial waters to 12 miles, but nothing definite was agreed. However, the Icelandic government unilaterally declared a 12-mile limit from their shores.

Britain refused to recognise the Icelandic declaration and continued to fish within the new limit. This led to the first Cod War, in which Iceland’s Navy harassed British trawlers. There was some violence, including ‘rammings’, and Royal Navy ships were deployed to protect the trawlers.

Following the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1960 and 1961, Britain agreed to the 12-mile limit.

In September 1972, Iceland extended its coastal non-fishing limit to 50 miles. Again British trawlers had their nets cut by Icelandic Coast Guard vessels and there were rammings between Icelandic ships and British trawlers and frigates.

In October 1973, UK and Icelandic representatives agreed that a limited number of British trawlers would be allowed to operate within the 12 mile limit for another two years. It ended with an agreement between the two countries that limited British fishing to restricted areas, within the 50-mile limit, for a further 2 years, expiring in November 1975.

In 1975, at a third United Nations (UN) Conference of the Law on the Sea, it became apparent many countries supported a 100-mile limit. In May 1975, Iceland declared a 200-mile limit.

Iceland claimed that it was merely enforcing what would soon be international law. The British government refused to recognise that, and the result was the third Cod War.

By the end of 1976, the British conceded this limit too. This effectively ended British long-distance fishing.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy and the demise of the UK fishing industry

Common fisheries policy

In 1970, the European Economic Community (EEC) drew up a Common Fisheries Policy, which allowed equal access to community waters by all community members.

A coastal zone was established around each European coastline for local fishermen.

The UK fishing industry considered that this was against UK interests, but ministers insisted they had a good deal to balance conservation with fishing.

UK Quotas were cut by 40% to preserve depleting stocks.

This reduction was feared that thousands of jobs would be lost as a result, not from the boats, but also impacting on the supply chain, i.e fish processors, net makers, equipment suppliers, market sellers and the transport companies whose livelihoods also depended on the fishing industry.

During the 1970’s, Britain’s fishing industry employed around 50,000 fishermen. Today there are around 17,000.

Fishing Industry Quotas.

Today, those involved in the industry believe the system is poorly enforced and does not work. They argue that millions of tonnes of fish have been thrown back in the sea, as a result of quota rules.

Until stopped by the John Major government, for years foreign vessels, especially from Spain, registered in Britain under “flags of convenience” to claim part of the annual quota. This led to bitter battles between British and Spanish fishermen in the 1990’s.

Small oily fish such as mackerel, herrings and sardines account for almost half of the total catch.

But the economic weight of the sector rests on valuable species like cod, even though these only account for around 4% of the total catch

Many fishermen were vocal in their support for leaving the European Union, feeling that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) offered a bad deal for our fleet, with its quota system offering too small a share to the UK.

That is a rarely questioned fact, by anyone in the industry or coastal communities.

UK Government Failure.

Some campaigners point to the UK’s system of allocating quota to UK boats is being a part of the problem. The allocation of quotas was based on past catches to have continuity, but it has today become fully or partially privatised, without parliamentary consideration or with any input from the public.

Quotas can now be bought and sold, a process that disadvantages small fisheries and does not focus on food production or coastal communities.

Maximising UK shares of stocks should be used for domestic UK consumption and in finding ways to encourage UK consumers to eat more locally caught fish. 

What our Government has allowed to happen to the UK fishing industry is the Quotas being bought and held by those who have the money. i.e large conglomerates, leaving only some highly priced quotas being made available to genuine UK fishermen, who support the local fishing communities around our country.

The fishing quotas authorised by our government go to big companies who’s business is not primarily fishing. The “slipper skippers”.

The UK distribution means 79% of fishers have access to 2% of quota and the five largest quota holders hold more than a third of available UK quotas. The present arrangements don’t cater for long term sustainability.

Only a few quotas are available to those individuals considered to actually be working in the UK fishing industry. The UK Fishing Industry deserves a better deal from the UK Government.

After over 60 years of decline in UK distant fishing, the industry needs government and academics to listen to the fishing and coastal communities. We need a government that stands up for the fishing industry and coastal communities.

The UK Fishing Industry needs a New Political Party that will support & protect our trawler fishermen and their communities.

The Aims of change UK politics

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