top of page
Centenary Logo.png

Trail Stop No 4: St. Ives seine fishing

The humble pilchard features heavily in St Ives’ history. Described in 1603 as ‘the least fish in bigness, greatest for gain, and most in number’, it became a local staple of the industry. For most of the period for which records exist, the pilchard  industry was the main fishery in Cornwall, with annual catches at St Ives frequently exceeding the whole of the rest of Cornwall combined. The largest recorded catch in a single day taken at St Ives was in 1847, when over 57,000,000 pilchards were caught.

The method used to catch pilchards in St. Ives was called seine fishing. Watchers called huers were stationed at high points overlooking the bay to look for the arrival of the fish. On sighting them they would cry 'hevva', the Cornish word for shoal or swarm. This was the signal for the seine boats to set off from their stations, and be guided by signals from the huers towards the pilchards. The seine net was a quarter of a mile in length, and would be 'shot' around the shoal.  A warp rope fixed to a capstan ashore would be used to gradually draw the seine towards the shore. Finally a tuck net was shot inside the seine, raised, so bringing the fish to the surface, and the fish were dipped out of the water in baskets, transferred to dipper boats and brought ashore.

The pilchards were then transported to the pilchard cellar, where they would be built up into a stack of alternative layers of fish and salt and allowed to cure, a process known as bulking the fish. After about 4 weeks they were washed and carefully packed into barrels or hogsheads, each containing at least 2,950 pilchards. They were pressed using pressing poles and pressing stones to extract the oil, a valuable by-product, and the hogsheads were then sealed, ready for export mainly to Italy

Seine nets were successfully used in this way for hundreds of years but by the late 1890's the fishery had begun to decline. Huge seine nets were expensive, so if fishers wanted to work for themselves, they would use smaller drift nets. These nets were long rectangular nets shot in fleets of several joined together creating a net curtain in the water. The nets were shot at dusk and would drift with the tides, with the fishing boat attached to one end of the row. Eventually pilchard drift netting or driving became the mainstay of pilchard fishing and the practice of seine netting for pilchards eventually died out.  The last seine to be shot in St. Ives was in 1924.

St. Ives Museum has a recreation of a 19th century pilchard pressing cellar which includes many original items of equipment, together with a paintings and an extensive collection of photographs of the seine fishing industry.

Tucking Pilchards1.jpg

Tucking pilchards in St. Ives bay

Huer telescope -  Comley.jpg

A huer watching from Porthminster point

Screenshot 2024-03-24 204032.png

How seine fishing worked

bottom of page