The Bonny Shoals of Herring: the unending pursuit of the ocean’s glorious bounty

Oh, it was a fine and a pleasant day,
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring
As a cabin boy on a sailing lugger,
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring.

So goes the second verse of Ewan MacColl’s classic 1960 ballad The Shoals of Herring. Even today more than 3.5 million herring are taken from fisheries across the Atlantic and Pacific and they remain a staple food source for many people.

Herring boats and their mighty catch on the wharves of Great Yarmouth
Herring boats and their mighty catch on the wharves of Great Yarmouth

That said, the romantic life of the herring fisherman as MacColl reimagined it has long since passed. No longer do men serve the same captain from boyhood to the grave, or haul in nets with their bare hands…at least not on a commercial scale.

Often found in fairly shallow waters, herring have long been prized as a catch of convenience. The earliest commercial fisheries are recorded in the Baltic during medieval times, with some 35,000 fishermen following the shoals of herring across Western Europe by the 13th century.

16th century Nordic herring fishing
16th century Nordic herring fishing

Great Yarmouth became one of Britain’s major herring ports, turning the town into a thriving metropolis by the early 18th century, as described by the visiting Daniel Defoe:

The river lies on the west-side of the town, and being grown very large and deep, by a conflux of all the rivers on this side the county, forms the haven; and the town facing to the west also, and open to the river, makes the finest key in England, if not in Europe, not inferior even to that of Marseilles itself.

The ships ride here so close, and as it were, keeping up one another, with their head-fasts on shore, that for half a mile [800 m] together, they go cross the stream with their bolsprits over the land, their bowes, or heads, touching the very wharf; so that one may walk from ship to ship as on a floating bridge, all along by the shore-side: The key reaching from the drawbridge almost to the south-gate, is so spacious and wide, that in some places ’tis near one hundred yards from the houses to the wharf.

The greatest defect of this beautiful town, seems to be, that tho’ it is very rich and encreasing in wealth and trade, and consequently in people, there is not room to enlarge the town by building.

The economic boon provided by the fisheries enabled provincial backwaters to flourish, but no doubt life was tough for the fishermen themselves. Several hundred years ago rudimentary navigation, vulnerable craft and few safety provisions rendered fishing one of the most dangerous jobs about.

Modern herring trawler in Norway
Modern herring trawler in Norway

That is not to say that the considerably smaller number of people employed on the industrial trawlers today take no risks. Now, though, the greater frustration lies with diminishing stocks and the irksome international fishing quotas rather than prospect of impending death.

One thing that has remained a constant, however, and which MacColl eagerly noticed is the toughness that the fisheries imbues in a human:

Now you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman.
You can swear and show a manly bearing.

This is not, and never has been, a life for the faint-hearted. The rewards can be great but the consequences are often deadly. The drifters may have vanished from Yarmouth Harbour, washed up for good on the fertile Baltic coast, but the successors to the early mariners continue to pursue the bounty of the ocean.

Night and day the sea we’re daring,
Come wind or come winter gale, sweating or cold,
Growing up or growing old or dying,
While we’re hunting for the shoals of herring

Obscured and forgotten in the modern world, we still place great reliance on our hunters of the watery depths. So long as we protect our oceans, we shall continue to do so.

Barents sea
Herring fishing on the Barents Sea in the 1930s