Seine fishing: picturesque and profit-seeking

Cornish fishing is suddenly all over the news. Disappointment over the result of the Brexit deal promises difficult times to come. Meanwhile, almost every evening we’re fed a diet of documentaries about fishermen in Cornwall. Pondering on this I realised that there haven’t been many blogs about fishing on this site (for an exception see here). Let’s make up for that.

Before the 1900s there was a form of fishing undertaken in Cornwall that also caught the attention of the media. This was seine fishing, responding to the annual shoals of pilchards that would appear off the Cornish coast in August and September. Some of them would be caught at sea by drift fishermen but the bulk were traditionally taken close to the shore by what were called seines. A seine comprised three boats, two carrying the nets with six or eight men on board, while a smaller one hosted the master seiner. These, directed by a wildly gesticulating ‘huer’ on a nearby cliff, would enclose a body of pilchards within a large seine net drawn in a wide semi-circle and hanging down to the sea-bottom. The gap between the ends of the seine net was closed by a smaller stop net to stop the fish escaping.

The whole mass of trapped fish would then be pulled closer to shore before the fish were ‘tucked’, using a small tuck-net, drawn to the surface and pulled on board. The West Briton reported the scene during tucking at night.

The operation is always performed at low water … the number of boats sailing or rowing in all directions around the seine; the quantity of persons employed in taking up the fish with baskets; the refulgent appearance of the scaly tribe, struggling, springing and gleaming to the moon in every direction, the busy and contented hum of the fishermen, together with the plashing of the frequently-plying oar.

The classic artistic representation of tucking the fish: Percy Craft’s ‘Tucking a school of pilchards‘ (1897)

This picturesque scene caught the attention of the visitor and inspired the talented wordsmiths of the local press although they rarely noted the more materialistic context of the fishery.

In the 1700s the main seine fishery was on the south coast, with Mevagissey the principal port. By the end of that century the pilchards became more prone to turn north, allowing the rise of seining at St Ives, which became the main centre of the fishery. By 1800 there were around 300 seine companies based in the ports and coves of Cornwall with about 200 being effective, the others temporarily or permanently laid up. At the bigger places like Mevagissey or St Ives up to 40 or more different seine companies operated, having previously agreed to divide the coastal waters into separate zones in order to avoid a situation of chaos with all the boats competing for the same stretch of sea.

A seine boat plus nets cost £1,000 (around £80-90,000 now) and for most of the year it would lie idle. For a couple of months at most, fishermen would be employed, each seine needing 16 or more men. These were part-time, having to find other work for the rest of the year. In addition to the cost of the seines and nets and payment for the men there were the cellars and other buildings on land, where the fish was stored, and the wages of the women who bulked (packed) and salted the fish. According to an estimate in the 1820s this almost doubled the cost of the seine itself. Clearly, all this required considerable capital and indeed seine companies were owned by merchants and groups of adventurers and had been since at least the 1400s. Picturesque it may have been, but seine fishing had been a profit-seeking, heavily capitalised venture for centuries.

(The above is adapted from Chapter 5 of my forthcoming The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820.)

One thought on “Seine fishing: picturesque and profit-seeking

  1. A really fascinating account, vividly illustrated by the picture. It is interesting to see that almost every fisher is aged. That seems quite telling, too. Great to know what women did, too (in this and some other recent articles) as well as others in the fishing chain. Interesting to consider who had the immense monies for the boats, and how profit was distributed along the chain. How much did the fishers get?


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