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Sea Fish and Shellfish

The Herring Industry

The main markets for red herrings from Berwick were Newcastle, Hull, London and Glasgow.

Until the 1830s, most of the white herrings went to Ireland, or to the West Indies where they were fed to slaves. Following the abolition of the slave trade, Europe became the main market for white herring.

The period from the 1850s to the 1880s was the heyday for the North Sea herring fishing industry.

In 1884, Berwick was the fifth most productive East coast herring port, employing over 300 fishermen in 80 boats. In addition, there were 47 coopers, 317 gutters, packers and kipperers, and 155 carters and labourers. At that time over 700,000 barrels of white herrings were being packed in Spittal each year, most of which were exported to Russia, Germany and the Baltic States.

By the end of the 19th century, the increased catching capacity of the steam-powered fleets meant that prices for herring fell. In 1900, 36,733 crans of herring were landed in ports from the Coquet to the Tweed, valued at £42,289. The following year 26,950 crans were landed, worth only half the price.

Larger and more efficient fishing vessels meant that the North Sea herring stocks became rapidly depleted and by 1908 the number of herring boats operating out of Northumberland ports had halved.

The great days ended with the collapse of the German and Russian markets for cured herrings after the First World War. Many of the fishing boats were laid up. The hulls of some of the old herring drifters can be seen today, upturned on the beach beside the harbour and the castle on Holy Island, now used as sheds for storing fishing gear.

Extracts from contemporary newspapers relating to the markets for herring and the decline of the industry