Otter Trawls

The otter trawl is a well-established and reasonably well documented bit of gear – general common knowledge says its Irish in origin, originating in freshwater loughs before making its way to English shores. Adopted in the 1880’s, it wasn’t fully utilised until the 1890’s by the surely now famous Mr Scott of Granton. If he laid claim to this invention, I have yet to find a patent for it… Nevertheless, the otter trawl became widespread within a few years.

Those that would benefit were the new steam trawlers, themselves recent additions to the fishing fleet. unlike sailing smacks, they were better able to maintain the speed that trawl doors required. Once commonplace, a multitude of variations on the trawl door and trawl itself appeared, form the functional to the fabulous. According to my database, there are 77 different patents relating to trawling between 1984 and 1914 – and most of those are just for doors. these patents are just the British ones, of course – with most of the applicants being English or Scottish. Who knows how many other patents there in European databases?

So what happened to the sailing smacks? Many simply fell into disuse, a great many were sold on to other countries, like Scandinavia. The Second World War sounded the end of the sailing smack in England and Scotland, even with the loss of vessels during that time.


GB189420323, a patent from 1894

Amsterdam ISBSA

Since last monday I have been in Amsterdam, the city built on herring bones and reclaimed land. I was attending the week-long ISBSA conference – The International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology. One of the great things about maritime archaeology is the sheer variety and scope of this field, with topics varying from an in-depth study of a single Roman barge from 60AD, found in France, to an annual project scanning to seabed of the Zuiderzee to understand the dangerous and swiftly changing tidal channels.

Although I didn’t get much work done PhD wise, succeeding only in catching a cold, I did get a few ideas for future projects and presentations of my own. One interesting project – a student’s master thesis – was about the Dutch watership, a wooden vessel that was in use from around 1600 to about 1800. It was a trawler of sorts then, with a well inside to keep a live catch. It was a popular vessel and got bigger as Amsterdam expanded and the population needed a larger food supply. Later on it was also used as a tug, before being abandoned in favour of other vessel types. Later on in the week I saw a lecture on the seabed survey that was/is being conducted in the Baltic, along where the new pipe line will run. It was interesting to note the number of shipwrecks that were discovered, as well as the suspected shipwrecks and the dis-articulated timbers that litter the seabed.

It got me to thinking less about ships and more about ship gear, as I now wonder how much gear is lying on the bottom, not just the ships themselves. Trawling is almost invisible in archaeology because the gear does not survive – or at least, that is the assumption. But how many of the random, loose timbers that are picked up, dismissed and disposed of are actually a key part of our maritime heritage? I’m sure the maritime historians – and archaeologists – would be very happy to find a 17th century beam from a beam trawl, or a pair of wooden doors from the 1880’s. The net might not survive, but it’s not impossible – rope and organic matter like fabric, leather, hemp and plant material can be found on shipwrecks of all ages, it’s just a matter of their environment and recognising what has been found…

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Continued

I am still in Bagenkop, a lovely little town in the south of Langeland, an island in Denmark. Although I am attached to the University of Southern Denmark’s archaeology fieldschool, I have had a chance to walk around the harbour and look at the local area. From Bagenkop harbour it is pretty clear that fishing may be small scale but is very much a long-standing tradition in this area.

Trawl doors in Bagenkop – one of many piled up

Bagenkop is a few kilometers from a village called Magleby. It is in Magleby that I am currently working with my trusty fellow students on what we hope will be a Viking Age settlement. What’s interesting is that up until about 150 years ago Magleby was connected to the sea by a nor (or inlet). They began to reclaim the land in 1853 – although the process never seemed quite successful, as demonstrated by numerous storms that flooded the new land, as well as the need for pumping stations to manage the water table.

A gent fixing his nets in Bagenkop harbour

After the land was reclaimed, the fishermen of the area filed a suit against the government for compensation. Their case was not simply practical; they stated that not only did they lose revenue and access to Magleby’s church (leading to a new one being built in Bagenkop), but also that the reclamation had made the area less attractive than before. they lost their case, a blow followed by another in the 20th century when a bridge was built to connect Langeland to the rest of Denmark with a efficient road system. As a result, Magleby, and then Bagenkop, lost most of it’s fishing trade. Currently the fishing fleet numbers in the few dozen.

A fishing vessel in Bagenkop harbour

In Bagenkop harbour the fishing boats are moored alongside yachts and other small vessels, while the areas directly around the harbour is full of fishing paraphernalia. Given Bagenkop’s tiny size, it is clear that the small fishing fleet one of the only industries here, along with farming and tourism.

The entrance to one of the many small work huts/houses that crowd around Bagenkop harbour

For those interested in archeology, a subject that ties in pretty well in this area, the underwater site is going well, while myself and the land team are still conducting resistivity test and land surveys. History tells us that this area is rich in farmers, fishing and fishermen-farmers, and as such we hope that we can find out where the Viking house that would have been among the earliest of that era in Magleby would have stood. Tomorrow we head to the priest’s garden, the gentleman himself having been kind in allowing a bunch of scruffy students to wander around and talk shop about all this old stuff.

Me, resistivity meter and the same bit of field I’ve been standing in all week

Well, I’ve been pacing up and down the same field for the last week, endured rain, wind, gravel, maths, sunburn and a distinct lack of cake. I’m heading out for a beer, and shall be posting again at the end of the week.

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Denmark

A week ago I said I would be posting again, which given the silence that has reigned since is a bit of a fib, I’m afraid. Well, I meant to post, but as soon as I returned to sunny Esbjerg I got immediately packing to go to Bagenkop. Bagenkop is a lovely little own in Langelend, Denamrk. Langeland is described as the Caribbean of Denmark, which I thought was a bit of a fib myself. After two days and some not too debilitating sunburn, I am prepared to admit that sunshine is not in short supply down here.

I am here not on fishy stuff, but on an archaeological fieldschool, looking firstly for a boat barely a 100 meters of Bagenkop and an area called Ågebet. The second focus is on the land immediately adjacent to this area, currently the village of Magleby. And the sunburn? Courtesy of two days standing on a lawn with a resistivity meter. And only three weeks to go!

We  – or rather, I and the Maritime Archaeology Programme of the University of Southern Denmark (and home to this PhD) are looking at the whole area for some good archaeology. What I can’t help but notice is all the small fishing boats, and of course some trawl doors in the harbour – all of five minutes walk from our accommodation.

More posting soon – that’s a promise this time!


A Few Good Books

I have, for the last three months or so, been steadily reading through a succession of not particularly useful, yet interesting, books about fishing. A good few have been dismissed as soon as I have seen the contents page – sometimes the ambiguous title gives little indication of what lies within…

Here are a few of the more interesting, if only faintly relevant ones:

 – The North Atlantic Fisheries: Supply, Marketing and Consumption, 1560-1990.

A collection of essays covering a wide geographic range, from Newfoundland to Spain. my favourite articles are the ones “Fish promotion in the Netherlands, c. 1690-1983” and “Creating a demand: the marketing activities of the  German fishing industry, c.1880-1990”. Another good one is “Concentration or disintegration? Vessel ownership, fish wholesaling and processing in the British trawl fisher, 1850-1939 “. They are all rather academic (as they should be, I suppose) but have lovely pictures – the marketing articles have great pictures of industry posters from the early 20th century, as well as following the changes and progression of the industry. And if you fancy a change from fishing industry, there’s a nice piece about fish consumption – aboard the 17th century Swedish warships.

The North Atlantic Fisheries: Markets and Modernisation.

This collection of essays is much like those above; covering a wide geographic range and dates. Not really relevant for the pelagic stuff, but some interesting ones. The one that was most relevant was “The impact of steam vessels on Britain’s distant water fisheries before 1914” – the changeover from sail to steam is one I find fascinating. “Modernizing the fishing: regional fisheries policy in northern Norway, 1945-1970” charts the changes and development of the industry post WW2, dealing with a rough period in European history with clarity and logic.

A History of Fishing

A really nice little book, albeit a tad out of date. Not too academic, but very much written by people who know their stuff, and covers the simple stuff simply and the more complicated stuff logically. Covers the early stuff (pre-history), the medieval stuff before giving half the book over to the 20th century and the progression from sail to steam. When the book starts into the modern stuff, it lays out statistics and the explores the development of the modern fishing industry by nation. A very useful book, I found.

A Guide to Fishing Boats and their Gear.

Published in 1968, this little gem isn’t too up to date but it is rather lovely. there are numerous hand drawings to accompany this guide to different boats, ships and fishing techniques. It is a lovely little book, and although it is of little use i am loathe to return it to the library.

So these are a few from the pile. Although they are not particularly relevant, I found them interesting and they certainly broadened my knowledge somewhat!