UK’s modern fishing fleet must work 17 times harder for the same catch as their sail-powered Victorian counterparts

5/5/2010 Guardian Study suggests decline in UK fish stocks more severe than thought.The UK’s modern fishing fleet must work 17 times harder for the same catch as
their sail-powered Victorian counterparts, a study has claimed, suggesting the
decline in fish stocks is more profound than previously thought.
Records of fish landings dating back to the 1880s showed UK trawlers – then
fishing closer to port – landed twice as much fish in 1889 as today, despite
advances enabling crews to fish further, faster and deeper.
Researchers say the results indicate technological developments and the
exploitation of new fishing grounds have served to mask the “extraordinary”
decline of fish in British waters.
In England and Wales, 19th century fishermen were landing four times as much as
In 1937, at the peak of the UK’s fishing industry, the catch was 14 times what
it is now, the study, by the University of York and the Marine Conservation
Society, said. The availability of bottom-living fish has since fallen by 94%.
Examining previously overlooked government records, researchers calculated the
“landings of fish per unit of fishing power” (LPUP) by comparing the effort
trawling vessels put in with the amount they caught to assess the availability
of fish.
The crash has been huge for some species. From 1889 to 2007, the LPUP declined
500 times for halibut, more than 100 times for haddock, and more than 20 times
for plaice, wolffish, hake and ling.
Cod had declined by 87%, the study, published by the online science journal
Nature Communications, found.
The figures indicated fish stocks were in decline well before the amount of fish
being caught went “catastrophically downhill” in the 1960s, the study’s authors
They called for much stronger reform of the EU common fisheries policy to allow
for recovery of fisheries in the seas around the British Isles.
The study’s lead author, Ruth Thurstan, of the University of York’s environment
department, said: “Fishermen have to work 17 times harder than 100 years ago to
get the equivalent catch.
“And this is despite more powerful boats, more durable and wider nets, freezing
facilities – technology that is far more sophisticated than in the last century.
“Now UK fishing trawlers are bringing in about 150,000 tonnes a year, compared
to double that 100 years ago.
“The availability of certain bottom-living fish, like halibut, turbot, haddock
and plaice, has also dropped by 94%. This is not a direct measure of fish
stocks, but based on catch numbers … it does give a strong indication of the
state fish stocks are in.”
Simon Brockington, the head of conservation at the MCS and the co-author of the
study, said: “Over a century of intensive trawl fishing has severely depleted UK
seas of bottom-living fish like halibut, turbot, haddock and plaice.
“It is vital that governments recognise the changes that have taken place. The
reform of the common fisheries policy gives an opportunity to set stock
protection and recovery targets that are reflective of the historical
productivity of the sea.”
In making their calculations, the study’s authors took into account fish quotas
imposed by the EU and included estimates of the spawning stock’s biomass when
working out the LPUP index, Thurstan said.
Professor Callum Roberts, of the University of York’s environment department,
said: “This research makes clear that the state of UK bottom fisheries, and by
implication European fisheries, is far worse than even the most pessimistic of
“European fish stock assessments, and the management targets based on them, go
back only 20 to 40 years. These results should supply an important corrective to
the short-termism inherent in fisheries management today.”
The late 19th century saw a huge boom in the UK’s fishing industry, particularly
in Scotland.
In England, Whitby, Grimsby, Lowestoft and Fleetwood were important sea fishing
ports. Before the 1880s, long-lining was the usual method used to catch white
fish, which was labour-intensive. Trawling as we know it today was introduced in
the late 19th century.
But trawling has existed since the 14th century. A petition presented to
parliament in 1376 called for the prohibition of a “subtlety contrived
instrument called the ‘wondyrchoum’, an early beam trawl consisting of a net
18ft long and 10ft wide.
Until the late 18th century, sailing vessels could only tow small trawls. A
vessel was then developed by the fishermen of Brixham in Devon which was capable
of towing a large trawl in deeper waters.
By the end of the 19th century, it is estimated there were more than 3,000
sailing trawlers in commission in UK waters. Although steam power was available,
most continued to trawl under sail because it was more efficient.

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