Revealed: Fishermen’s work has got 25 times harder in last 150 years

Fish populations in UK coastal waters are a fraction of what they used to be

It might sound like a fisherman’s tale, but trawlers have to work 25 times harder to catch the same quantity of fish today as they did 150 years ago, scientists have calculated.

Fish populations in UK coastal waters are a fraction of what they used to be, and by analysing historical records researchers have calculated that for the effort put in, a modern trawler catches only a small fraction of what its sail-powered predecessors could expect to catch.

The introduction of bottom trawling, whereby metal or wooden bars fixed to nets are dragged over the seabed, was identified as the key factor in the dramatic decline in fish numbers in UK waters.

Scientists used the records of two 19th century Royal Commissions to provide the first quantitative estimates of the impact of bottom trawling – which is more efficient but less selective, and also damages the seabed habitats relied on by many marine species – and reveal that it was a “turning point” for UK fish stocks.

They calculated that for the same effort, modern trawlers caught 25 times fewer fish than their counterparts in 1860. “Amazing but true,” Professor Callum Roberts, of the University of York, told the website Fish2fork.

Evidence given to the Royal Commissions, one from 1863-66 and the second from 1883-85, included witness statements on how catches had fallen as bottom trawling spread to fleets around the country over the 70 years from 1810 to 1880.

One retired fisherman from the North-East told the 1866 commission: “Twenty years ago we used to get 600 or 700 head of fish a day there [Spurn Point, off Grimsby]; now they cannot get about 20 head, or three or four score at the outside.”

Another fisherman recalled: “Up to 1855 a vessel would capture as much as 60 stones [380kg] in a night from the Silver pits. It is unusual now to get more than six or eight stone [38-50 kg], which is a good haul.”

Witnesses spoke not just of finding fewer fish than in previous years but of how they had to travel further out to sea, work harder and buy extra fishing equipment just to catch the same quantity as they used to.

Catches had fallen so dramatically by the 1880s that even some trawler owners were calling for bottom trawling to be outlawed out to three miles from the shore, and concern about fish stocks led to landings being recorded from 1886.

Dr Ruth Thurstan, now at the University of Queensland in Australia but at York University when the research was carried out, said it was clear that bottom trawling transformed fishing around the UK. “Our findings help to improve our understanding of past change and the long-term effects of our activities upon the marine environment,” she said.

In a paper published in the journal Fish and Fisheries the researchers concluded: “This study provides evidence of the large-scale destruction that occurred to seabed habitats and inshore fish populations long before collection of fisheries statistics commenced and even longer before regular scientific monitoring began.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself with remarkable success
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower