Are the fisheries deteriorating or not ? The only practicable way to test the question is to compare the season's catches at the present day made by one or some other given number of boats, with the catches made by the same number of boats, working similar gear, at an earlier period of similar duration.
Perhaps the most useful work the Marine Biological Association ever did was in sending Mr. W. L. Holt to make investigations into this subject. In the report of the Association for October 1894 there is a paper by this gentleman on the destruction of immature fish in the North Sea. He states that the suggestions as to size limits embodied in the draft report of the parliamentary committee would, if carried into effect, leave the North Sea fishery in statu quo. So much for committees. With regard to one important flat fish, he says :
That plaice are actually decreasing in the North Sea is a fact so generally recognised that it hardly needs illustration, but the present scarcity may not be so apparent from figures dealing with aggregate catches as it becomes when we examine the catches of individual boats. In examining the total figures it must be borne in mind that the fishing power is enormous, our own large fleet being supplemented not only by foreigners, but by vessels hailing from other British ports, such as Scarborough, Shields, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and even Milford Haven.
The scarcity is most felt in the winter months, when, for whatever reason, the fish are very hard to catch. Thus in the last winter a smack failed to average two boxes of plaice in ten consecutive voyages along the neighbouring coast and off Flamborough Head, an area which has the reputation of being fairly productive for the season. The matter may be further illustrated by extracts from some observations of which my friend Mr. R. Douglas permits me to make use. On February 1, 1893, a steam trawler landed one plaice after ten days' fishing ; on the 3rd another landed one box after eight days. On December 13, 1892, a steam trawler had three boxes for fourteen days, and on the next day two similar vessels had two each for eight days. These figures are, unfortunately, by no means so rare as to be exceptional.
Mr. Holt regards steam trawlers as most powerful engines of destruction, dangerously so, in fact, in the present state of the grounds. With regard to the advantage of closing the fishing grounds within the three miles' territorial limit of the shore, Mr. Holt gives an account of some trawling which was carried on by Professor Mcintosh, on the Garland in the neighbourhood of Scarborough, with the object of obtaining soles to stock the Scotch Fishery Board's hatchery at Dunbar, etc.
The fishing grounds extend along the coast for a little more than ten miles, from Hayburn Wyke to Filey Brigg. Scarborough lies midway between these two points. The fishing grounds had been closed to trawlers for two years, and the local people believed that a considerable improvement had already manifested itself in the local line fishery. Soles seemed scarce, but those taken were fine fish, and it was a curious fact that the local fishermen were catching soles very easily on their lines, though the steam trawler took very few. This, I think, is often the case early in the season. Directly after spawning the fish are hungry, and take a bait more readily than at other times. While the Garland took only sixteen and a half pairs of soles in her trawl during the best night's fishing, twenty-five and eighteen pairs were respectively taken on lines from two cobbles fishing on the same grounds in one night. Mr. Holt's conclusion is that the sole fishery had greatly revived since trawling was forbidden in those waters. He was told that the haddock fishery had not much benefited by the by-law, as the grounds lie further out than those on which the soles are chiefly caught, and that the trawlers still encroach a good deal on the territorial haddock ground.
It is often put forward on behalf of the trawlers that all undersized fish are returned to the water, being unsaleable. But this is one of those dreadfully unpractical remarks put forward by unpractical people, who quite overlook the injury done to the fish while in the trawl. Referring to the trawling experiment off Scarborough, Mr. Holt said 'a rather large quantity of undersized haddock, whiting, and gurnard were thereby destroyed, while the destruction of small plaice, though not great in actual numbers, was very considerable in regard to the local supply of this species'.
From investigations carried on by the Scotch Fishery Board, it seems that when the trawl is only down for from an hour to an hour and a half the percentage of dead fish is small; but that when the net is kept down for six hours or seven hours nearly all the more delicate fish, which will include the smallest of those caught, if not killed outright, are so injured that they die in the course of a few hours.
Soles are very scarce on the east coast of Scotland, and for the purpose of obtaining some for fishcultural purposes, the Garland made the journey already described to the Yorkshire coast. Of the soles caught many died. Some were placed in St. Andrews Bay, and others in a tidal pond, but of these a large number subsequently died. At the next attempt a Grimsby trawler caught a large number of soles off the coast of Holland and endeavoured to keep them alive in tubs ;. but out of several hundred only twelve were living when the English coast was sighted, and these perished before they could be landed.
Later on the Lancashire Sea Fisheries Committee agreed to allow their steamer to trawl for soles off the Lancashire coast, for the use of the hatchery. The trawl was only dragged for short periods, with the result that the soles were vigorous when brought on deck, and there was no difficulty in preserving them alive and transporting them from Fleetwood to Dunbar by rail. After some difficulties in connection with the carriers had been overcome, forty-two out of forty-seven soles were brought alive and in good condition to Dunbar.