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Fishing and Polperro


History of the fishing industry in Polperro
The fishing industry in modern times
Fishing in Polperro today - the facts




History of the fishing industry in Polperro

Fishing has been the principal occupation in Polperro for generations, and the harbour was a valuable source of income to the local lords of Raphael manor since the 12th century who owned it until ownership passed to the Harbour Trustees in 1894.

From time immemorial, pilchards have moved in quantity to feed off the Cornish coast and were caught in abundance by Polperro fishermen.


Like seafarers everywhere, the fishermen were hardy individuals resigned to a precarious existence dictated by the changing rhythm of the wind and the waves. While they were at sea, the women were employed salting, pressing, bulking and cleaning the fish ashore. The pilchards were packed in hogsheads and the contents were pressed by heavy weights so that the oil and salt seeped into specially made drains from which 'train oil' was collected for use in lamps.

Even before 1800 Polperro's pilchards were sold far and wide, including ports in Italy. Later, in the 20th century, two Italian brothers settled in Polperro and leased a fish store in the Warren (now the Museum) from where they exported to their home country.

Two terrible storms struck the harbour within seven years, however. In January 1817 the ruin was dreadful; out of 45 fishing boats, 30 were completely destroyed and others damaged almost beyond repair. The capital outlay for a boat was almost as much as for a house. Many houses were washed away, fish and salt stores were demolished and the old pier nearly destroyed as the sea surged ashore. Although the harbour itself was rebuilt by Zephaniah Job, Polperro inhabitants were ill-equipped to suffer such a setback to their industry.

Again, in November 1824, 19 boats were destroyed in a similar storm. Whole families were destitute and the fishermen had to apply for help from the inadequate poor rate. A fund was raised to pay for new fishing boats, the harbour walls were rebuilt and eventually an outer pier was built and paid for by local people. When, in 1894, an Act of Parliament established the Harbour Trustees, vessels using the harbour were charged for goods shipped and unshipped, and the proceeds used to maintain it.

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The fishing industry today

Pilchard fishing from Polperro continued until the 1960s. For several generations, right up until the early part of the last century, large seine nets owned by the fishermen were used to catch pilchards when they arrived off the coast of Cornwall.

Today, only a few pilchards are caught by the fishermen for baiting their long-lines. More than two dozen local men are currently engaged in commercial fishing at sea from Polperro, where a fleet of six trawlers, six netting boats and two crabbers is based.

As in times past, fishing is a hardy occupation, controlled largely by the weather. In fine weather, the men are able to earn a reasonable living although they need to spend a great deal of time at sea.

  Summer 2000 - fishing boats moored in Polperro harbour Some of Polperro's fishing boats, Polperro harbour, summer 2000

The fish that are landed command a much higher price than they did 40 or 50 years ago, not least because the catches are much smaller. In contrast to their predecessors, today's fishermen use much more expensive gear, pay more for fuel and have to contend with a great deal of paper-work, filling in forms detailing where, when and what they catch in order to comply with EEC quotas and regulations.

Fish landed at Polperro is either sold immediately to Continental buyers who transport it by road or goes directly to the fish markets in Plymouth and Looe. There are also cold storage facilities on the quayside in Polperro.

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Fishing in Polperro today - the facts:


The Boats - and the fish they seek

Polperro currently has 13 commercial fishing boats, employing about 30 local fishermen for whom fishing is as much a way of life as it has been for generations of others in the past:

Three trawlers, 40 foot boats with a minimum crew of two men that trawl (tow their net along the sea bed) to catch mainly flat-fish. The trawlers operate 40-50 miles out to sea in summer, often for two or three days at a time, but closer in shore during the winter months.

Two scallopers, 24-34 foot boats crewed by two men that fish with metal rakes inshore for scallops, usually on a daily basis (weather permitting).

Two crabbers, similar in size to scallop and netting boats, crewed by one or two men, who 'shoot' between 100 and 150 crab pots, renewing the bait in each daily. The crabbing boats sometimes fish with nets.

Six netters, now usually crewed by two fishermen, that 'shoot' their nets on the seabed for monkfish, rays and other fish. The net mesh varies in size according the type of fish to be caught. Cod are fished from November through to February; monkfish between April and October; Pollock in the summer months and bass at the end of the summer. Netting boats also fish for mackerel during the autumn and winter months using hand-lines and occasionally using long-lines for conger eel.


When they fish and why

Because Polperro is a tidal port, the fishing boats can only leave or enter the harbour when the tide is halfway above the high water level, a period of six hours in every 12. At low water, the boats are grounded in the harbour and are equipped with 'legs' to support them. Mooring buoys in the outer harbour enable boats to leave and return at low tide however.

Four factors determine when the fishing boats put to sea:

1. Weather. The boats will usually put to sea every day unless a gale (or worse) is forecast. If they are caught out at sea in rough weather, they may decide to make for an all-weather port such as Fowey.

2. Tide. There is a six hour period (three hours either side of high tide) when boats can leave or enter the harbour.

3. Daylight. As a rule, the catch is reduced at night so fishing is usually carried on in daylight.

4. Fishing ground. Where the boats fish is usually decided by word of mouth and past experience. Most fishermen keep notes of past fishing trips which they use as a guide.

Before putting to sea, therefore, they must calculate how long it will take them to reach their fishing ground then allow for the tides and available daylight. In good weather, they will tend to keep fishing as long as possible, the trawlers often spending as much as 100 hours a week at sea in the summer. Bad weather in the winter months will often prevent the boats going to sea for as long as a week or two or even longer. Overall, most fishermen spend at least two thirds of their days at sea.


What they do at sea

Once they put to sea, the fishermen will spend the time preparing their gear, carrying out whatever minor repairs they can.

When they arrive at the fishing ground, the boats use echo-sounders to locate the sea-bed and any shoals of fish.

On the homeward journey, the crews aboard the trawlers and netting boats gut the fish, washing and boxing them in plastic crates (in ice on the trawlers).

Scallop fishermen will wash and bag the shellfish in bags of 10-15 dozen per bag.

Crab fishermen 'nick' the crab claws to prevent them pinching, and tie elastic bands around lobster claws.

Mackerel fishermen will wash, grade and box their catch.

The plastic boxes used by the fishermen in Polperro are coloured yellow, while those of Looe are blue. Other ports use different colours.

On their return to Polperro harbour, the catch is landed and taken to the fish market in the harbour where it is weighed, iced and refrigerated until it is collected by lorry and taken to Looe for auction or by road to fish markets elsewhere in the UK and abroad.



Jeremy Johns, Polperro Heritage Museum © 1999, 2000

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