On the rise and demise of ring net fishing for herring, which originated in the waters of Loch Fyne and played a role in the sad development of overfishing
The ring net is an early form of pelagic trawling involving two boats. It developed out of shore-based herring fishing in inlets and bays, where the net was stretched behind a shoal feeding in shallow waters and then hauled directly on to the land.
Shore-based nets go back at least as far as Ancient Egypt. The method is closely related to the weir herring fishing of the Bay of Fundy on the coasts of Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
The extension by boat came naturally out of the need to manoeuvre the net, but two boats enable the net to be freed from the shore at both ends, opening up the possibilities of the technique in deeper waters.
Ring netting was developed in the mid 1830s in Loch Fyne on the West Coast of Scotland. There was little room for larger vessels to use the larger drift nets that were being used by the herring luggers in the deeper water fishing grounds, but the ring nets caught substantially more fish than the loch’s own small, open-decked drift netters.
With a ring net, working in partnership, two boats could surround a shoal, trapping it by tightening the ring. As a Scottish Fisheries Museum factsheet explains:
‘A ring net consists of five panels – the wings, shoulders and bag, each with a canvas float attached. It hangs vertically in the water where the wings and shoulders serve to guide the herring into the bag. Two boats would sail to the fishing ground where one would remain at a certain point with one end of the net. The other would sail round in a circle, shooting the net as it went, until it rejoined the first boat. Both crews would then board one vessel to haul in the nets.’
Drift netting is passive – it relies on identifying where the shoals might be, but ideally the nets are shot before the fish rise to feed. Ring netting involves a more active pursuit and therefore more refined methods of identifying a shoal’s size and position.
Notable was the use of a weighted cord and eventually piano wire, a skilled crewman feeling the vibrations created by the herring shoal brushing against it and making the calculations.
Angus Martin’s deeply knowledgeable and meticulously researched book The Ring-Net Fishermen (1981) details the history, the culture and conflicts.
In 1833 two Loch Fyne fishermen had caught 6,700 barrels of herring by stretching their drift nets across a bay. A number of trials were initiated with, experimenting with nets adapted for trawling.
By 1842 the Fishery Board was seizing what it considered as illegal nets, even though the mesh size (1″ from knot to knot) was as specified in the legislation of 1808.
The ring net experimenters were in Tarbert, towards the mouth of the loch. The fishermen further up at Inverary and elsewhere understood that the herring swam up the loch to their nets. Catching such a high proportion of the shoals lower down the loch would destroy their livelihoods.
It’s important to recognise here that they were crofter fishermen, taking advantage of the herring when it came as part of an agriculture of the margins. They would pursue the herring to other grounds, but this was irregular. Their land was psychologically at least as important as the fishing.
In 1849, petitions were sent to the Fishery Board by both the drifters and the ring netters. The driftermen argued that the new method destroyed the spawn and fry. It led to over-catching and dumping, the rotting fish repelling the shoals. The ring netters were interfering with the drift nets, stealing the catches. It would lead to the driftermens’ ruin.
The counter argument was that it was free to everyone to change, ring netting was more efficient and generated higher incomes.
The board’s report supported the drifters and a parliamentary act of 1851 banned the practice of ring netting. The Navy was drawn into policing the fishery, more nets were seized, guns were fired. In 1853 a patrol from HMS Porcupine shot and wounded a Tarbert ring netter called Colin McKeich. In 1861 Peter McDougall of Ardrishaig was killed.
Policing fishermen is hard at the best of times. The Loch Fyne ring netters knew the waters. Herring fishing takes place at night. The fish had to go to market by sea, anyway, and there were larger boats that would take the catch without it having to be landed.
There was widespread defiance and the economic argument was persuading more and more of the driftermen to convert to the new method, which was also spreading beyond Loch Fyne.
It was a situation that has been played out in so many contexts over the centuries. Eventually, in 1867, ring netting was legalised. The struggle continued to be played out in the fishing communities of the Highlands and Islands and on the East Coast. Steam, enabling greater manoeuvrability for larger boats increased the efficiency.
The method spread to Scandinavia, where it was particularly suited to the fjord fisheries of Norway, but there was also an increasing adoption there of single boat purse seine trawling, which had been developed in the USA. This, in turn, led to the demise of ring netting, ended the dominance of drifting and gave us the 60s and 70s collapse of herring populations in the North Sea, on the West Coast of Scotland and in Iceland.
The drift netters of Inverary were right. Angus Martin, himself from a ring netting family, in conclusion reflects on the work of having made his book:
The most profound and influential personal lesson of these five years of questioning and gathering has been this: that Western society, by its criminal contempt for the fellow creatures which share its corner of the planet, has brought itself to the edge of an ecological and moral crisis from which, without the excercise of immediate and unswerving restraint, there can be no withdrawal.