[From Leech's Guide, 1861]
"Oft as the fleet, from Monas shore,
Bears to the deep its changeful sail,
Let each his prayer devoutly pour
And consecrate the welcome gale."
The importance of the Herring Fishery to the Island will perhaps merit a digression on the subject, If the enquiring visitor is desirous of witnessing the process of fishing he will find no difficulty in obtaining permission to voyage on board one of the luggers. The boat has a crew of seven men, one of whom, the most experienced, takes the helm, and assumes the command. Soon after sailing preparations are made for the evenings repast, to which the stranger is heartily invited to partake. Meanwhile an anxious look-out is kept for the appearance of sea birds, called gannets, which are known to indicate the presence of the shoal of herrings by hovering over them. The fishermen are guided also by the appearance of what they call "big perkins," which follow the shoals, and are a certain indication of their presence. When a satisfactory position is obtained, sail is shortened to wait sundown, before which no net is allowed to be shot; but as soon as the glorious orb has dipped beneath the western horizon, still glowing with his golden rays, preparation is made to cast the nets, which are fastened together by a strong line, and buoyed up by skin or cork floats. When the whole are run out the rope is attached to the vessel, which is allowed to drift with the tide. Then each man reverently takes off his sou-wester, and silently kneeling down asks that blessing and protection from the Great Giver of goodness which all require. Part of the crew now retire to the forecastle to sleep, perhaps to dream, while the rest remain on the look out to see that the craft rides properly, and to prevent other boats fouling the nets. Some put down their hand lines to fish for haike, numbers of which are caught. Towards two or three oclock in the morning the laborious process of hauling in the nets, which are about a mile in length, commences. It is a work of considerable labour, and demands the continued exertions of the whole crew, especially if the fishing is heavy, or the weather rough. The herrings are caught by the gills, in the meshes of the net,, and many of them as they are taken up are still alive, but die almost instantaneously. As the net is passed in, a great proportion of the fish are thrown into a heap, but many remain entangled until the nets are overhauled after reaching harbour. Will our adventurer kindly volunteer to use a hand net to catch the fish that fall into the sea as the net is being taken up? Sometimes mackerel are caught, and at others the fishermen are greatly annoyed by levies of dogfish. which not only frighten and devour the herrings, but occasion great destruction to the train. The nets by law are not allowed to be made under the proper size for meshing full sized herrings; some years since they were laboriously made of twine by hand, but now cotton is preferred, and machinery is employed to manufacture them. It is found that the cotton wears much better when steeped in a decoction of oak bark, a process which both the nets and the vessels sails frequently undergo. The texture of the cotton nets being finer than the others, are less easily seen, and generally take more fish.
When all is safely on board, sail is set, and then comes an exciting race which boat gets earliest to market, there being much rivalry among the respective crews as to the sailing qualities of their vessels.
Peel, Port St. Mary, and Douglas are the principal ports which vessels usually make for, according as the shoals of herrings may be near these respective harbours. ~Ramsey sometimes participates in the interesting and profitable trade, but only occasionally, as the fish are usually found off the southern parts of the Island. As soon as the boats reach the anchorage or harbour, buyers make their appearance. and after a short wordy warfare, the bargain is struck and the cargo sold. Prices vary greatly according to the supply, demand, and quality of the fish, which differ considerably from night to night, and between different boats on the same evening. The range may be stated at l0s. to 25s. per mease of five hundred, each hundred counting 124, Thirty to fifty mease is a good fishing, but sometimes a fortunate boat brings one hundred mease to market, but these large hauls are rare. Some are bought by Cadgers, to supply the different parts of the Island, some are shipped by steamers to Liverpool, being put into barrels with a little salt over them, and some are purchased by fresh buyers, as they are called, which are fast_sailing smacks, that proceed to Liverpool or other markets to dispose of them. The following extracts, in reference to the herring fishing on the north coast of Scotland, is not inapplicable : "The herring fishery may well be called a lottery; some years the take is very large, and at other times it does little more than pay expenses. This, coupled with the fact of many places being now barren of fish that in former years yielded a good supply, has given rise to an opinion that we are killing our goose with the golden eggs. The originator and principal advocate of this view is Mr. John Cleghorn, who, being resident in the place where the herring fishing is carried on to a great extent, has had the most ample opportunities for observation and research. The points of Mr. Cleghorns doctrine are the following :l That the herring is a native of the waters in which it is found, and never migrates. 2. That distinct races of it exist at different places. 3. That twenty-seven years ago, the extent of netting employed in the capture of the fish was much less than what is now used, while the quantity of fish caught was, generally speaking, much greater. 4. There were fishing-stations some years ago which are now exhausted; a steady increase having taken place in their produce up to a certain point, then violent fluctuations, then final extinction. 5. The races of herrings nearest our large cities have disappeared first; and in districts where the tides are rapid, as among islands, and in lochs where the fishing-grounds are circumscribed, the fishings are precarious and brief; while, on the other hand, extensive sea-boards having slack tides, with little accommodation for boats, are surer and of longer continuance as fishing-stations. 6. From these premises it follows that the extinction of districts, and the fluctuations in the fisheries generally, are attributable to over-fishing. herrings, says one of the belligerent journals, will very soon be as rare a fish as the salmon, and found only on the tables of the wealthy.
"The information which even our most intelligent fishermen can impart as to the natural history of the fish is so scanty, as to be of no practical value. They go out in their boats to catch them, not to observe and note their habits. Of course, they have in general acquired a certain knowledge of the places where their prey most do congregate; but even in this respect, the falling in with the shoal is quite a chance affair. The usual mode of determining the whereabouts of the fish is very primitive, consisting principally of observations we have already referred to. They do not swim in an unbroken mass, but in tribes or nations, or at least in regiments or divisions."
There are few Manxmen who have not spent some seasons at the herring fishing, and it is well known that small farmers, after sowing their corn and planting their potatoes, employ the summer months in herring-fishing, and in the autumn return to their families and friends, bringing with them the produce of their praiseworthy exertions. The uniform system is to sail the vessels on shares, each man having one, and the owners of the boats and nets, which are often owned separately, having also certain shares, regulated by custom At the end of the season the expences are deducted from the gains, and the balance divided. It is an old custom of the islanders to lay up a winter store of salted herrings, rich and poor, farmer and tradesman, uniformly following this wise practice.
The importance of this profitable Manx trade will be apparent when it is stated that the number of vessels belonging to the Island engaged in it (including those how building) is about 250, the value of each averaging £120, and the nets as much more, forming an aggregate capital of £60,000, and employing about 2000 men, besides supporting ship carpenters, rope-makers, sail-makers, net-makers, and those engaged in the purchase and distribution of the herrings. In addition to this large fleet, the Island fisheries are yearly visited by Scotch and Cornish boats.
In conclusion, a few remarks may be permitted as to the accommodation now provided for the herring fleet, and the urgent necessity for fostering and protecting the trade. However desirable it may be that Douglas and Ramsey should have their projected harbour improvements carried speedily into effectand the irnportance of this no one can questionit is of equal necessity that the harbours frequented by the fishing luggers should be enlarged and protected. Take for instance the harbour of Peel, which last season possessed about 110 vessels engaged in the trade, and to accommodate which in the most indifferent manner it required the utmost exertions of the experienced and energetic harbour master. With an addition of the twenty new and superior vessels now constructing, it is impossible to imagine where they are to be berthed. There is another evil attending the present state of the harbour, that when the weather appears threatening the vessels remain in port, but in the event of a favourable change taking place, they are prevented from taking advantage of it and proceeding to sea, by the vessels taking the ground about half tide, and consequently six hours are lost, and also the opportunity of that nights fishing, thus involving incalculable pecuniary loss. Much has recently been said as to the advantages that would be derived from the construction of an efficient harbour of refuge at Port Erin, and no one acquainted with the locality can deny its importance. At present there is no protection from the prevailing westerly winds, but a breakwater might be run out at a comparatively moderate cost. The loss of the herring fleet in Douglas Bay on the 19th September, 1787, when many precious lives were lost, and much valuable property was destroyed, is still marked as one of the most important and disastrous of the insular records, and the possibility of similar disasters occurring ought not entirely to be lost eight of when discussing the subject of Improved harbour accommodation.