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THE PILCHARD FISHERY.
The pilchard fishery of Cornwall and Devonshire—Description of drift and seine nets—Process of cleaning and salting the fish—Statistics of catch in various years—Definitions of fish measures—Cornish sardines—Irish fishery—French fishery.
THE pilchard (Clupeapilchardus) is of a somewhat less compressed and rounded form than the herring. The great seat of this British fishery is the coast of Devonshire and Cornwall, particularly Mount's Bay, St. Ives, and Mevagissey, where they are caught in vast numbers. In July the early pilchard fishing commences, and from that time to the beginning of September the whole coast from St. Ives to the Ram Head is in a state of excitement and activity. So much do the comforts of all the labouring classes depend on a successful take of pilchards, that an unproductive season is nearly as disastrous as a deficient harvest on land would be.
The fish are taken in either drift-nets or seines. The former are for entangling the fish in the open sea, and are about half a mile in length, by five fathoms in depth. The latter are cast near the shore, and in shallow water. To work a seine three boats are required. The first large one, carrying the stop seine, is manned by a crew of nine, six rowing, two to shoot the seine, and one acting as bowman, on whom the course of the boat depends. The second boat is called the volgar or follower, and carries the tuck or smaller lifting seine. The third is the lurker, the smallest of the three, and is chiefly occupied by the hirer or guide, and some boys. The seine is of various lengths, ranging from 250 to 300 fathoms, by 13 to 16 fathoms deep. Its meshes are smaller than those of the drift-net, the object being to enclose the fish without meshing them.
The seine net has a line of head-ropes, to which are attached corks and other buoys, to keep its upper edge near the surface. To the lower edge are attached innumerable small pieces of lead, which bear it down and keep it close to the ground, the object being to shoot the seine in shallow water with a clear bottom. The "tuck" is a similar net, but of smaller dimensions; its mesh is of the same size as that of the seine, but it has in the middle a hollow bag, as it were, into which the fish go when the process of tucking is going on. These nets are very expensive, costing from £300 to £600.
The "drift" fishing employs about 47 boats. Each boat costs about £200, or when a set of three nets is provided, so as to fish for herrings and mackerel as well as pilchards, the cost is £400. Unlike the seine boats, the drift boats must all be manned by sailors.
As many as 4200 hogsheads, or over 1200 tons, of fish have been taken in one cast of the seine, but this enormous catch was an extraordinary haul. A good cast, enclosing a large shoal, has, however, often yielded 1200 hogsheads of fish.
The pilchards, when taken on shore, are gutted and cleaned by women and children, and piled, with layers of salt, in large heaps in cellars or warehouses, where they remain for about a month; and being subsequently washed and thoroughly cleaned, are packed in hogsheads and subjected to pressure to extract the oil, about three gallons being yielded by each cask, when the fish are fat.
Great quantities of salted pilchards are sent to the Mediterranean, particularly to Naples and other parts of Italy, where they are largely consumed during Lent.
The number of hogsheads exported in 1851 was 26,743. The average for 10 years then stood at 23,446 hogsheads. Taking the number at 2500 fish to the hogshead, over 58,500,000 fish are caught annually, weighing 10,620 tons. About 5000 tons of salt are required to cure the catch for export, as there is but a small local consumption.
In the seven years ending 1863 the average annual export was only 13,757 hogsheads, but 1859 and 1860 were unprecedently bad years, the take being only 3500 hogsheads. The catch of 1863, on the contrary, was large, reaching 26,057 hogsheads. The shipments were larger at the close of the last century than they are now.
The total takes in Cornwall for the last three years have been very small, namely, 7543^ hogsheads in 1874, 7337h in 1875, and 6700 in 1876. In the last-named year only from 300 to 400 hogsheads were captured during the summer fishing, which ends on the 15th of September. These produced from 63J. to 67s. per hogshead. The main take was in the autumn and winter, and they went as high in price as 10or. per hogshead.
Italy will absorb, at fair prices, as much as 30,000 hogsheads annually, and depends upon Cornwall for the supply.
Pilchards arrive on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall from June to September; sometimes they are caught about Christmas. A hogshead of pilchards, well cured and pressed, will hold 2500 to 3000 fish. The fresh fish weigh about 6\ cwt., and the salt 3^ cwt., but the weight of the hogsheads when cured and pressed is reduced to about cwt., including the weight usually allowed for the cask, 28 lbs. Ten thousand pilchards make a last. A hogshead is supposed to consist of eight baskets of fish, and a basket contains about 400; but this number varies with the size of the fish. The fish are sold by the long hundred —120.
A new industry has been started in Cornwall within a year or two, that of preserving small pilchards in oil in tins, after the manner of sardines. The seat of the company's operations is at Newlyn ; a Frenchman conducts the operations. The Cornish sardines grow in favour and demand in London. Their flavour is considered quite equal to that of the foreign fish, and their nutritive qualities greater; while the extra size of the box, and the liberal way in which it is filled, all tend to commend the home product .
Large shoals of pilchards appeared off the coast of Cork and Kerry during the year 1876, principally from July to the end of October, some as late as November. They were in the greatest abundance off the Cork coast, and in many places came close in to the shore, and were captured by small seines drawn in upon the rocks. No efforts have yet been made in Ireland to cure for the continental markets, but some have been cured for home consumption on various parts of the coast. By degrees this fish is being regarded with more favour by the country people, and if they continue to frequent the Irish coasts as they have now done for some years, there is little doubt that a considerable trade will result.