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Fishing by steam

Steam makes fishing more productive
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Steam makes fishing more productive

Fishing has a history at least as long as that of boats and ships.  The effect of steam was to make fishing more productive, allowing fishing vessels to be more efficient and to cover greater distances in order to exploit new fishing grounds.  Perhaps they have become just too effective, as present day depletions of many fish stocks are due to over-fishing.


The first steam vessels to go fishing were probably steam tugs, which put down a net to catch fish when they were not busy towing.  From these tugs in the late 18th century developed steam trawlers, which adopted a method of fishing already in use by sailing vessels.  The trawl is a large conical bag, dragged along the seabed by two ropes from the trawler.  When full, the trawl is drawn up to the trawler by a powerful winch, then lifted on board and the fish dumped on deck.  After the catch was sorted on a traditional trawler it was placed on ice in the holds until it could be taken back to port.  

Steam trawlers originally fished mainly in the North Sea until diminishing fish stocks drove their owners to send them further afield.  After the Second World War, distant water trawlers fished off Iceland and in the Barents Sea, for instance.  This meant they had to be bigger and more strongly built to survive in some of the world’s stormiest weather.  Until the 1960s the typical side-fishing trawler brought its nets up at the side, with its deck crew working on deck, often in atrocious weather conditions.  The advent of the stern trawler made distant water fishing somewhat safer.  

The net is drawn up through a slipway in the stern and the catch dropped onto a lower deck for sorting.  A trawler can make a round voyage of 5,000 miles during one fishing trip, so facilities are provided for freezing the catch so it arrives home in good condition.  Some owners have gone further and incorporated a factory on board to process the fish.


Steam drifters evolved from sailing craft to carry out a different form of fishing.  They use a drift net which can be several kilometres long, and which is suspended vertically from a series of buoys.  The fish swim into the net and are caught by their gills.  The drift net is put out at dusk because the fish it catches, typically herring, feed near the surface at night, and is pulled on board the drifter in the morning.  Drifters work much closer to home than trawlers, and tend to be smaller.  With the decline of herring stocks in the North Sea and elsewhere after the Second World War, drifting and drifters have virtually died out.

Seine netters

Amongst the most popular current methods of inshore fishing is purse seining, using a net which combines elements of the trawl and the drift net.  The net is about a kilometre long and is shot in an arc.  The ends are drawn together, enclosing the catch in the bag or purse.  Ropes are hauled in to reduce the size of the bag until it can be drawn on board.  Purse seining typically involves a small motor fishing vessel, which looks like a miniature version of a trawler.

Steam makes fishing more productive
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