In the 19th century, herrings were caught using a traditional drift net, like the one on display. The long net formed a curtain in the water that was suspended with corks floating on the surface. The fish were trapped by the gills, as they swam against it.
It was the predictable nature of the herring’s migratory path to the east coast waters that brought fleets of fishing boats to exploit and harvest this highly commercial resource. The lower quality herring were often destined for the slave plantations in the West Indies, where they provided a cheap source of nutritional food for slaves. After the abolition of slavery in 1834 the herring were exported to the Baltic and Europe, but by the start of the nineteenth century and the onset of war, the market collapsed and never recovered.
There was a concern that too fine a mesh on the nets would prevent the young fry from escaping and a Bill was passed in 1809 specifying that nets should not have a mesh of less than one inch from knot to knot. If fishermen were found to be using nets which infringed this regulation, they would be confiscated and destroyed, and a fine of £40 would be imposed. Since the nets were an important investment for the fishermen, and tended to shrink with repeated use, this was to prove a difficult rule to enforce, and in the early days the British Fishery Board found it necessary to seek the support of the navy.
The North Sea herring stock suffered a major collapse in the early 1970s, due to overfishing, which led to the fishery being completely closed from 1977 to 1980. The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SMAS) has predicted that herring may vanish from Scotland’s west coast waters by 2100 because of global warming as they seek out the colder waters of the north.
The net is shown here stored in a quarter cran basket, which is an official measure for herring catches.