A history of the Cornish fishing industry

Posted on 03rd October 2017

Fishing is one of the oldest professions in the world and has been of importance to the UK economy for centuries. Whilst many of our fish and chip shops and restaurants now rely on stocks from Icelandic waters and elsewhere, however, the county of Cornwall is one area where fishermen still use their skills – honed over many generations – to supply the local population and people further afield with the freshest and most delicious food from the seas.

Small fishing boat on sea

In this article, we will take a brief look at the colourful history of fishing in Cornwall and how recent years have seen the practice make something of a return to its ‘glory days’.


Pilchards and sardines

Fresh sardines in boxes

Perhaps Cornwall’s most famous traditional fishing exports, pilchards (now more commonly referred to as ‘sardines’) were a cornerstone of the county’s economy for literally centuries.

Fishing towns and villages such as St Ives and Newlyn were instrumental in maintaining the success of the pilchard-fishing industry, and indeed Newlyn life remains deeply embedded in fishing today, hundreds of years later.

Unfortunately, pilchards – which grew to become extremely popular in the early 20th century – were massively overfished in the 1920s and ‘30s, leading to an extreme drop in prices which had a hugely negative impact on the industry’s fortunes, before sardine fishing stopped completely in the 1970s.

Today, however, pilchard and sardine fishing, as with so many other previously largely forgotten ways of life, is seeing a revival in its fortunes. Around 13 vessels now operate sardine fishing operations around the Cornish coast once again.

The Pilchard Works company – based, unsurprisingly, in Newlyn – is a great example of how traditional industries can shine in our connected age, with their tins even available on Amazon, as well as many shops around the country.




Almost as important to the Cornish way of life as pilchards and sardines for many years was herring fishing. Indeed, for nearly half a century spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the most lucrative of all types of fishing in the county.

Once again, however, the 1930s proved disastrous for this micro-industry, with rapidly depleted herring stock around the Cornish coast being blamed on the increasing prominence of industrial-sized trawlers passing through the county’s waters. Apparently, these trawlers had the effect of disturbing herrings’ spawning ground and, consequently, led to massive reductions in available fish.

Like pilchards and sardines, however, careful conservation and environmental efforts have led to herring being back on the menu in Cornwall thanks to increasing stocks in the Celtic Sea. Whilst there is not yet any evidence that herring have made a comeback to Cornish waters, they are now being successfully fished in Devon and experts are confident that this delicious fish will be available off the Duchy’s coast once again before too long.



Lobster nets


Finally, we must make mention of lobster, which is perhaps more popular among diners across the UK and beyond than it has ever been.

Unfortunately, rising demand for this delicious seafood creates the inevitable risk of depleting supplies around Cornwall’s waters. As such, the amazing work of the National Lobster Hatchery – based in Padstow – is proving to be of increasing importance in an age where food sustainability is now a top global priority.

The hatchery, which also serves as a great family attraction where children and adults can learn more about lobsters and the industry as a whole, serves to produce the crustaceans and release them into the sea to avoid chronic depletion of stocks. According to the team at the hatchery, up to 60,000 2-3 month-old lobsters are released into Cornwall’s waters every year, ensuring that supplies do not run the risk of falling to dangerously low levels, as they have elsewhere in Europe.

The hatchery’s programme is supported by the local fishing industry itself, which assists in the releasing of lobsters into the sea. This fantastic initiative is yet another example of how a traditional industry is now very much moving with the times in order to secure its long-term future.

Cornish fishing boat docked in harbour

There are many almost completely unspoilt fishing villages which are waiting for you to visit when you next stay at one of our coastal holiday cottages in Cornwall. Whether you want to learn more about the history of this famous industry or just relax in the serene atmosphere of these lovely locations, be sure to plan your next visit to the county soon to make the most of what it has to offer.

Image Credit: Stuart Webster, Steve Parker