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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 16. Buds of Promise

Part 4. Harbingers of Hope

The inner Moray Firth stretches west from a line drawn roughly from the river Spey east of our town across to Helmsdale in Sutherland. That lovely village in Strath Ullie was settled by tenant farmers cleared off the land by the Duke of Sutherland, (the richest man in Britain at the time), and his ruthless factor Patrick Seller. An impressive ten foot bronze statue, The Emigrants, commemorates these sad events and the departure of over 100 of the evicted persons for Manitoba, Canada in 1813. After WW2 Helmsdale’s fishers sought to maintain their modest local fishery and to boost the village economy. For a while they appeared to have succeeded with a small fleet of boats that fished for prawns, haddock, plaice and cod. But the pressures of reduced quotas, EC regulations, and serious pollution of the local fishing grounds, halted the recovery of the small port, and left it to rely largely on tourism.

Until the mid-20th century, the Inner Firth was rich in fish and shellfish, including salmon from the rivers, and mussels on the rocks around the shore. Schools of sprat and herring abounded in the summertime, and even squid were seasonal visitors. Cod, haddock, whiting, plaice, lemon sole, nephrops prawns, lobster and brown crab were also common. There was even a local population of dolphins which survived year after year on sprat, herring and sand eels.

Between Helmsdale and Inverness there are three small Firths, Dornoch, Cromarty and Beauly. On the north side of the Cromarty Firth lies the former naval base of Invergordon. The location was the site of the last major mutiny in the British Navy. It occurred in 1931 when the Admiralty cut the already low pay of ratings by 10 to 25 %. 1,000 sailors and ratings from 4 battleships and 3 other warships refused all duties except normal maintenance. Marines sent to quell the strike also joined the mutineers. The Government eventually cancelled most of the cuts and restored some benefits. The Admiralty had 200 of the sailors jailed and 200 others dismissed from service. The following year the Atlantic Fleet as it was known, was re-named the Home Fleet, in an apparent attempt to reduce any memory of the mutiny.

At the north-east entrance to Cromarty Firth lies the town of Nigg behind which the Nigg yard operated in the 1970’s and 80’s, building and servicing huge oil rigs for use in the North Sea. The rapid development of the yard and the influx of labour from outside resulted in some social upheavals in the quiet Highland town. The Firth had endured some pollution from the naval fleets before the war, and was to suffer from some pollution from rig yard and oil rigs towed there for repair or maintenance. But the venture was not to last. The rig fabrication work has ceased and attention is turning to construction of offshore wind turbines. A worse development was the establishment of an aluminium smelter in 1973.

The sheltered pristine Cromarty bay could be ideal for a marine reserve or water sports area, if it was not used repeatedly for activities that clash with the environment. The aluminium plant appeared to be a bad idea from the start, and may have been erected largely in response to government grants and loans. It operated for only 7 years. During that time it was suspected of releasing poisonous waste into the sea. It closed in 1980 without repaying a million pounds of government assistance it had received. The owners threatened to close another plant in Wales if the repayment was demanded. The government, typically, capitulated.

Before and after its closure, the company dumped 300,000 tons of liquid slurry and 20,000 tons of solids into the Firth. The slurry contained cyanide, fluoride, sodium, and calcium salts. The solid material was mainly alumina, carbon, cryolite, and cyanide containing clay lumps.

Fishermen, anglers and marine scientists later agreed that the pollution made the whole upper Firth sterile for ten years. Fish were often found floating on the surface, dead or dying. Local boats caught only the dead carapaces or empty shells of prawns. The dolphin population decreased, and individual fish began to show signs of disease. Salmon fishers, lobstermen, and seine netters had to move farther a-field for fish.

But slowly from 1990 onwards, things started to improve. By 1995, several species were re-appearing in the waters, and by 2000, the area was looking more like its former self. I walked down to the cliffs over the Firth, west of Covesea one beautiful summer day in 2006. As I passed the fields, woods, and whin-covered dunes, roe deer, pheasants, rabbits, hares, and even the odd fox were visible. From the cliffs above the shore I observed a dozen dolphins herding a school of sand-eels towards the beach, watched by a flock of interested seagulls. Once the small fish were trapped in the cove below, the dolphins began to feed on them with skill and speed. The Inner Firth had been brutally poisoned and lay sterile for over ten years, but now, in its wonderful way, benign nature had cleansed and restored it to life.

Protection of vulnerable species – lesson from America

From 1970 to 1990 the United States grossly expanded its offshore fishing fleet in number and power of vessels, and encouraged the growth of ocean aquaculture. Both expansions brought severe pressure on stocks and added to sea-bed damage and sea pollution. But like the European Union on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the government was slow to admit that its promotion of unbridled capitalism in the finite marine environment, was short–sighted, and doomed to failure, with traditional fishing communities having to pay the price of that foolhardiness. However, there was one group of traditional fishers that managed to survive the crisis and maintain both stocks and harvesting jobs, throughout. This group was the lobster fishermen of New England.

The secret to the preservation of the lobster fishery lay in the strict rules developed over a century, and enforced mainly by community pressure, not policing from outside. I worked with the lobster fishers of Rhode Island and had some from Massachusetts and Maine in my class when I taught at the University. One of the McLellan family of Maine which operated for white fish, herring and lobster was among the best of my students. Another very bright student was an ex-Vietnam GI, Richard Allen, who went on to an illustrious career in fisheries that included becoming President of the local Lobster Association, a Fishery Commissioner for the Atlantic States, and a member of the National Sea Grant Review Panel. He also wrote several books and pamphlets on the application of fishery science to sustainable commercial fishing.

While the trawl fisheries of George’s Bank and the New England coast suffered from severe fishing pressure due to over-capitalisation, the limited entry lobster fishery maintained its equilibrium. The rules developed for stock conservation were later adopted by Irish lobstermen who found them to be beneficial and effective. The Maine fishermen had minimum and maximum sizes for lobsters they could land. Measured from the eye socket to the end of the carapace part of the shell, any lobster less than 3¼ inches, or over 5 inches, had to be discarded. The small ones were freed to grow bigger, and the large lobsters were released as they were the most prolific egg producers. Female lobsters with berries (eggs) were notched before release, and if caught again and identified by the V notch, were released once more. No boat or license holder could operate more than 800 traps, but all could fish year-round if they wished. The rules vary slightly in the different New England States and the Provinces of Maritime Canada.

For the sake of readers from the British Isles and Ireland, it might be pertinent to mention the differences between American lobster Homarus americanus and European lobster Homarus vulgaris. The lobster we know in Britain depends on crevices in the rocks on the sea bed for its protection and habitat. My father was skilled at fishing for lobster with a pole carrying an extended iron hook. He would wade out into the sea at low water in summertime, and especially during neap tides. Lobster would be pulled out of their holes and grabbed by the back as they swam past (a lobster swims backwards, tail first). The need for a secure rocky hole limits the overall population of lobster in any area of the European or Scandinavian coast.

The American lobster, in contrast, burrows holes in the sand for its habitat. So it can spread out over a much wider area than its cousins on the east side of the Atlantic Ocean. In consequence, American and Canadian lobster are more plentiful, - over 70,000 tonnes of them being harvested each year. They can also grow much bigger, up to 10 lbs in size, and are found over a greater range of depths, from the sea shore to the deep undersea canyons.

An interesting aspect to the lobster management is that the fishermen claim to feed the fish. Over 100,000 tons of herring are used each year as creel bait. Since most of the lobsters caught are released according to the criteria listed above, the fishermen believe they have fed these fish for the future. In that respect the whole operation can be viewed as a marriage of mariculture and capture fisheries. As one leading exponent of the system has said, “We protect our capital and live off our interest”.

The lobstermen also protect their jobs and their communities. If ITQs were permitted in the lobster fishery, and big companies were able to buy up the fishing rights, then hundreds of men would be made redundant and scores of coastal communities would suffer. But so far the lobstermen of Maine and the surrounding coasts have resisted that potentially destructive legislation.

. . . . . . . . . . .

North of George’s Bank and the New England fishing grounds lies the Bay of Fundy. This south-facing Canadian bay is home to large stocks of herring, and to visiting whales and other cetaceans. It lies between Nova Scotia to the south- east and New Brunswick on the north-eastern side. The Bay experiences fierce currents and a large rise and fall with each flow and ebb of the tide. There are three main methods of harvesting herring in the Bay of Fundy, one is by purse seine and one by drift net or gill net, and the third is by use of fixed weir traps. Actually it was Red Indian tribes that developed the weir traps. They used fences of woven brush and branches to guide herring into their traps near the shore, in what is now Maine and New Brunswick. In the 19th century settlers copied the Indian method using netting instead of brush. Today there are 300 weir traps in use, taking some 30,000 tonnes of herring each year. A total of 50 purse seiners are licensed to fish in the Bay, but they target other species in the off-season for herring. The same applies to over 300 small gill nets boats which operate locally.

Environmentalists have expressed concerns that the humpback whale population may suffer if the local herring stock diminishes. The commercial catch of herring runs at about 80,000 tonnes a year, and the amount whales eat there is almost the same. In addition to the humpback whale there is the larger fin whale that is sometimes found in the area. Environmental campaigners would like to stop all seine fishing for herring in order to maintain the herring stock primarily for the whales. Weir and gill net fishing are passive methods and not considered as big as a threat to stocks as purse seining. So the Fundy weir fishery is one of the most sustainable herring fisheries in the world, and one of the most socially stable in terms of its fishermen.

It is an example of how passive methods of fish capture can be appropriate, effective, and economic, even in a modern industrial country. Japanese fishers have operated huge coastal fish traps for centuries. Brush parks, weirs and large V-traps that guide fish into pens in shallow waters have also been a feature of coastal areas in Asia and Africa for generations.

An Ecological Balance

Lake Kariba, a huge man-made lake on the Zambesi river, was formed over 4 years up to 1962 after a hydro-electric dam was constructed at Kariba gorge. The lake is 140 miles (220 kilometres) long and up to 24 miles (40 kilometres) wide, and extends from below the Victoria Falls to the gorge at Kariba. Its greatest depth is 250 feet or 78 metres. The surface area is 2,150 square miles (5,580 square kilometers. The water it contains is a massive 160 to 180 billion tons (160 to 180 cubic kilometers) depending on rainfall. Some 50,000 Batonga tribes people were displaced by the rising waters, and were resettled around the new lake. Animals were also rescued and taken to higher ground by ‘Operation Noah’.

I had the privilege of working on the lake from 1962 to 1965, assisting the displaced subsistence farmers to become fishermen and have a cash crop for the first time in their lives. The relocation of so many people was not without some social upheaval but the Batonga coped well, though now, over 40 years later, their children and grandchildren are looking for additional compensation.

From the fishery perspective, a big question was whether the fish found naturally in the river Zambesi would thrive in the large lake. They were a mixture of herbivore feeders like tilapia and mud-suckers to voracious predators like tiger fish and giant catfish. While the large predators could be found all over the lake, the algae and insect eaters stayed largely around the shore and in the petrified remains of areas of mopani forest that were covered by the lake water.

At first the biologists in the Game and Fisheries Department thought it would be wise to stock the new lake with species of tilapia that were common in the northern lakes of Mweru, and Bwangelu, as well as the Kafue river. The fish they selected included red-breasted bream, and other tilapias. Fry of those species were put into plastic bags with oxygenated water, and were flown down to the lake-side and released. Initially they all disappeared and the catches of bream continued to be Tilapia mossambica, the common Zambesi bream. In the food-rich lake water some of them grew to enormous size. I experimented with gill nets of larger and larger mesh size, - 5 inch, 5½ inch, 6 inch and 6½ inch, and only ceased to catch these big specimens when using nets of over 7 inch mesh.

But the concentration of fishing effort on “Kariba bream” as the tilapia were called, was not healthy from a resource perspective. Other species were harvested but were less popular. The catfish tended to have red strong smelling flesh. Mudsuckers and bottom feeders were oily and did not stay fresh long, even on ice. Tiger fish were good eating as were smaller Alestes species, but they had some fine bones that were difficult to remove entirely. So there was a need for an alternative target species, and preferably one that lived in deep water.

The answer was to be the Lake Tanganyika sardine, Limnothrissa or kapenta as it came to be widely referred to. This was a small clupeid fish about the size of an anchovy, that was abundant in the deep water of the enormous lake Tanganyika. I had visited the lake and gone fishing at night with a Greek family that operated a small fleet of purse seiners from Mpulungu north of Abercorn. Speaking no Greek, I spent an evening at sea with the Greek skipper who had no English language ability. But by means of sign language and lots of paper sketches, we had a useful discussion and review of fishing methods from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, to east central Africa.

The kapenta were easily attracted by lights during the hours of darkness, and it was a simple job to scoop them up or set a seine around them, as Greek fishers did with Mediterranean anchovies. A Zambian postage stamp of the time I was there showed the Lake Tanganyika boats with their characteristic downward facing lamps extending from the double ended light attraction boats.

After very careful consideration of the biological impact of introducing a new species, the government biologists decided to go ahead with the introduction of kapenta to Kariba. The fish were an almost instant success. In a very short time they had established themselves in the deeper parts of the lake where in addition to being an excellent food fish, they attracted the main predators away from the bream closer inshore. All this work was done by Zambian officers, but it was Zimbabwe that was to benefit most from the kapenta for geographical and political reasons. The deepest areas lay in the southern part of the lake on the Zimbabwean side of the former Zambesi river bed. That was where the kapenta tended to congregate and it was there that harvesting facilities were set up using floating barges and large nets adapted to enclose the fish after they were concentrate around some powerful lights.

Catches of all other fish in Lake Kariba came to fluctuate around 10,000 tonnes a year, but those of kapenta often exceeded 30,000 tonnes. The kapenta also proved to be an excellent cheap protein food for low-paid urban workers and rural people with modest cash incomes. The kapenta or dagaa, were lightly salted and dried, in which form they could be kept for several weeks. So they could be transported to remote areas and purchased by poor families who could not normally afford meat or chicken. One cup of dried kapenta would feed a whole family.

I relate this story of the creation of an ecological balance in a man-made lake, not because I approve of dam construction which is becoming a serious environmental and social issue, but simply to show that wise management and sensible intervention can sometimes work well. I recognize that most new species introductions, whether of fish, animals, or plants, are a serious risk. Political issues can complicate management as happened between Zambia and Zimbabwe Unfortunately for Zambia, the kapenta fish it introduced is harvested mainly by the southern neighbour.

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