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The Royal Navy and Fishery Protection: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present

06 Oct 23


(Seaforth – £25)

ISBN 978 1 39904 170 6

320 pages

Capt Andrew Welch (retd.)

The author, Dr Jon Wise, has a degree in maritime history from Greenwich and a doctorate in naval history from Exeter. He certainly understands the wide range of resources available to today’s historians and has made good use of them, especially in his coverage of the Cod Wars.[1]

The chapters follow a generally chronological sequence from 1379 onwards, with a couple of exceptions where themes (the disputes over early Soviet Union and Norwegian fishing limits) need to overlap. Unusually, the first six chapters finish with a ‘Conclusions’ paragraph – probably reflecting the author’s academic background, as does his neutering of Britain (“The British might be persuaded…. if its precious fishing fleet was attacked”) and ships and his use of ‘fishers’[2] for people working in the fishing industry today. That said, the whole book flows well and is a ‘good read’.

The first two chapters cover from 1379 to 1905 and encompass the period when the RN regarded the fishing industry mainly as a reserve of manpower for when the fleet was mobilised – the expression ‘a nursery of seamen’ occurs regularly in 18th century documents. They also cover the beginnings of concerns about fish stocks and territorial claims of differing sizes. The Dutch Republic and the British disagreed over the North Sea’s herrings in 1609, with the Dutch supporting Grotius’s Mare Liberum[3] and the British the principles of Mare Clausum,[4] requiring those fishing off the British coasts to be licenced. Fishing was undoubtedly one of the underlying causes of the three Anglo-Dutch Wars in the 17th century.

The period of Pax Britannica after the Napoleonic Wars saw the industrialisation of fishing, with the steam trawler enabling much bigger catches and distribution via the railway system enabling the rise of the fish and chip shop with the consequent expansion of the fishing industry.

Chapter three open with a lengthy quote from the Naval Review in 1953.[5] When questioned, the author said he’d just found it online. This chapter covers the developments of both fishing limits and the formalising of the RN’s fishery protection mission. Problems over Icelandic (then a Danish colony) claims in the 1890s and the first use of a warp cutter (1880) are a warning of things to come. Clearly the reappearance of the warp cutters during the Second Cod War in in 1972 should not have been a surprise. By chapter four, we are into the widespread requisitioning of fishing vessels and crew in the two World Wars. Five and six cover early ‘fish wars’ off (newly Soviet) north Russia and Norway and chapter seven covers ‘peacetime’ activities by the Fish Squadron between 1815 and 2005, including Operation GRENADA, RN Ops off the Ulster coast during the Troubles and the myriad activities of the numerous Ton-class ‘minesweepers’. The final four chapters recount the post-WWII rewriting of the Law of the Sea – the UNCLOS conferences – expanding fishing limits from three to twelve to 200 miles, the three Cod Wars, Offshore Tapestry (the support of UK oil and gas installations) and finally developments this century, with the Fish Squadron being absorbed into the Offshore Patrol Squadron. Throughout, the developing Command and Control structure of the ‘Fish Squadron’ is well covered, as is the suitability, or (mainly) otherwise, of the ships tasked to fishery protection. He is full of praise for the fact that the Royal Navy at last has OPVs that are fit for purpose.

The chapter on the Cod Wars concentrates on the politics and the Command and Control of the assets involved, rather than detailing every event at sea. As noted earlier, Jon Wise has made good use of the National Archive, quoting papers from the Cabinet Office to the Foreign Office and the Treasury, as well as the Admiralty and MoD.

Overall, this book covers much more than just the RN and Fishery Protection. The evolution of fishing limits and territorial waters is well explained, alongside the reasons for the rise of fish and chips as the National dish.[6] The final chapter looks towards the future and rounds off a well written and interesting book. This book is highly recommended. Both for older members, many of whom will remember life in a Ton (with an open bridge, as likely as not) and the clashes and boredom of the Cod Wars. And also for serving members – fishery protection will remain an RN task for the foreseeable future.

[1] When I wrote The Royal Navy in the Cod Wars in 2006, the government archives covering the period had not been released to Kew.  Jon Wise’s thorough work on them provides several illuminating insights.

[2] The main fishermen’s charity remains the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen, aka The Fishermen’s Mission.  Having asked someone from the RNMDF about this his response was “Don’t go there. There are two seagoing ‘fisherwomen’ in Newlyn & they are insistent of being called fishermen”.

[3] Published 1609 in The Free Sea.

[4] Only at the time, of course.  Later Britain became one of the strongest supporters of the principles of Mare Liberum.

[5] There is another quote used later from 1992.

[6] No more – now said to be chicken tikka masala.