Origins of the bottom trawling controversy in the British Isles: 19th century witness testimonies reveal evidence of early fishery declines



Bottom trawling (nets towed along the seabed) spread around the British Isles from the 1820s, yet the collection of national fisheries statistics did not begin until 1886. Consequently, analysis of the impacts of trawling on fish stocks and habitats during this early period is difficult, yet without this information, we risk underestimating the extent of changes that have occurred as a result of trawling activities. We examined witness testimonies recorded during two Royal Commissions of Enquiry (1863–66 and 1883–85). These enquiries interviewed hundreds of fishers about the early effects of sail trawling and the changes they were witnessing to fish stocks, habitats and fishing practises during this time. We converted all quantitative statements of perceived change in fish stocks and fishing practices to relative change. Witnesses from the north-east of England interviewed during 1863 revealed an average perceived decline in whitefish of 64% during their careers, which many blamed upon trawling. Between 1867 and 1892, trawl-landing records from the same location suggest that this trajectory continued, with fish availability declining by 66% during the period. Fishers adapted to these declines by increasing distances travelled to fishing grounds and increasing gear size and quantity. However, inshore declines continued and by the early 1880s even trawl owners were calling for closures of territorial waters to trawling in order to protect fish nursery and spawning grounds. Until now, these testimonies have been largely forgotten, yet they reveal that alterations to near-shore habitats as a result of trawling began long before official data collection was initiated.