Bottom trawling and the importance of plaice

“The commons petition the King, complaining that where in creeks and havens of the sea there used to be plenteous fishing, to the profit of the Kingdom, certain fishermen, for several years past have subtily contrived an instrument called the “wondyrechaun” made in the manner of an oyster dredge, but which is considerably longer, upon which instrument is attached a net so close meshed that no fish, be it ever so small which enters therein can escape, but must stay and be taken.

And that the great and long iron of the wondyrechaun runs so heavily and hardly over the ground when fishing that it destroys the flowers of the land below water there, and also the spat of oysters, mussels and other fish upon which the great fish are accustomed to be fed and nourished. By which instrument in many places, the fishermen take such quantity of small fish that they do not know what to do with them; and that they feed and fat their pigs with them, to the great damage of the commons of the realm and the destruction of the fisheries, and they pray for a remedy.”

Petition by the Commons to King Edward III, 1376 (from The Unnatural History of the Sea)

This petition, penned in 1376, reveals a depth of understanding that we often don’t attribute to 14th century fishermen. Habitat destruction, overfishing, bycatch, even common pool resources are all clearly described here. In it, the Commons protests a new and efficient, though inaccurate fishing tool, the ‘wondyrechaun’, and begs King Edward III to ban it. This is the first historical record of the ‘wondyrechaun’, what today is called a beam trawl. Everything you need to know to understand why the world’s fisheries are in trouble is contained within the single fact that, in 1376, at it’s very inception, the people begged the king to ban it’s use, and 700 years later, the beam trawl survives.

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