The presence of oyster shells at La Hougue Bie, a Neolithic passage grave constructed between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago provide evidence of this.
After this time documented evidence does not exist until the 13th Century, when a large salt and wine trade existed between the Continent and Britain. The Channel Islands were important in this trade given the location and the added benefit of not having to pay British duty. Indeed Jersey boats, under concessions to the British King, were able to buy salt from Cadiz at more favourable rates than French boats.
The fishing industry seems to have been closely connected with these trades as ships returning empty from Britain often loaded with salted and dried fish from the Islands for sale in Catholic Countries where a fish diet was obligatory on certain days and seasons. The value of this latter trade must have been considerable because in 1247 strict regulations were enforced covering the period from Easter to Michaelmas to enable the King to collect duties from the 'eperqueries' or conger drying places. During the rest of the years congers were sold in the same way as any other fish.
In 1332 a report by Dupont to the King's Justices showed that approximately a quarter of customs revenue was taken from fisheries, and over a third was derived from all marine activities. The first mention of exploitation of the Gorey oyster beds is made in 1445, but it is most doubtful that this was on the same scale as 400 years later.
G.R. Balleine in his paper about 17th century social life states that “almost every farmer had his boat and went fishing occasionally; but there were also whole-time fishermen, for loaves and fishes, especially congers, were still the staple food of the island. The sea about these islands may be called the kingdom of congers….”
The cod fishery
The development of the Newfoundland cod fishery had a profound effect on the fishing industry. Newfoundland had been discovered by Cabot in 1497 (legend claimed a Mr Munn of Jersey discovered in 50 years before) and initially it is thought Jerseymen signed on with French vessels. However, in 1581 it was estimated that 17 vessels left St Helier for Newfoundland.
Dumaresq, in his survey of Jersey in 1685, states that “the most able-bodied young men with any ambition took to seafaring, many going to Newfoundland between spring and autumn and earning up to £20, while in the winter they earned about £3 on the farms."
In 1763 the Gaspe Peninsula was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Paris, and in 1767 Charles Robin sailed to the area and established a fishery under the auspices of Robin, Pipon and Co. At its height the company employed 4,000 men and in 1845 gave employment to 8,000 of Jersey’s 27,000 tons of shipping. The fish taken were sold as far away as Brazil and Naples and, after the Hudson Bay Co, this Jersey company was regarded as “the best syndicated business in North America directed to a single definite end”.
The fish were caught by seines and lines using dories. The fish were dried, salted and dispatched in wooden tubs, each holding 112lb, and shipped to various markets around the world. Although the company collapsed following the advent of iron clad ships in around 1886, dried cod from Newfoundland was still a feature of Jersey trade into the early 20th Century.
The oyster fishery
The oyster fishery which flourished in Jersey during the last century was probably the most successful indigenous fishery in the Island’s history. At its height it employed 2,000 fishermen working 300 smacks from 1 September to 1 June, as well as providing work for about 1,000 of the poorer inhabitants of the east coast of the Island.
In 1797 several oyster banks were discovered by British and Jersey fishermen a few miles to the north west of the Iles de Chaussey, between three and nine miles from the French coast. The distraction of the Revolution prevented the French from exploiting the beds and the Jersey fishermen took full advantage and developed the fishery.
In 1810 a regular export was established to supply the Kent and Sussex oyster companies. The port of Gorey was used to transfer the catch to English vessels. By 1830 the Kent and Sussex firms employed upwards of 250 boats each with a crew of six. A further 70 boats from other ports including Portsmouth, Southampton and Shoreham also worked the bed. The trade brought as much as £40,000 a year into Jersey and to meet the growing needs of the industry, port facilities were improved. A pier was built at Gorey and jetties were constructed at BouleyBay, Rozel and La Rocque. There was also a pickling factory at Gorey.
By 1833 the fishery was concentrated on the beds in GrouvilleBay. This had come about due to the successful opposition by the French to the dredging of the beds off Chassey by English vessels. In 1821 a French armed vessel had harassed the dredgers and in May 1822 a commission was formed to survey the disputed grounds. A naval vessel was sent to protect boats fishing more than three miles from the French coast. In 1824 this was increased to six miles effectively excluding Jersey and English vessels from the banks and forcing them to fish in Grouville Bay. These banks were incapable of sustaining such pressure and the effects of overfishing became apparent. In 1835 only 150,000 bushels were dredged compared with 306,000 the previous year. After 1862 many of the English vessels had left the Island to fish the beds off Dieppe, and by 1871 only six oyster boats were left.
Fishing gradually became inshore and short range with Les Ecrehous and Les Minquiers being the main offshore areas fished. In the early part of the 20th Century boats usually sailed out to these reefs and stayed there all week potting. The fishing industry was hit hard by the 1914 - 1918 War and did not really recover during the inter-war period with only a handful of full time fishermen operating. During WWII fishing almost ceased. Licences were granted but fishing areas were severely restricted because of the minefields.
After the war, fishing for lobster formed the major activity for the fleet which increased steadily from six vessels in the late 1940s to 15 full-time in the late 1960s.
Information compiled by the
States of Jersey Fisheries and Marine Resources