Brief history: how UK Fisheries is restoring a great British distant fishing heritage

The UK has a long and proud history of fishing in waters far from its shores. For centuries, we have been dependent on fish from distant waters -especially cod, the nation's traditional favourite.

British vessels have been fishing in Icelandic waters since the 14th century and have operated in the Grand Banks cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland since the 17th century. Spanish vessels fished those waters until the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when Britain was able to assert control. Between 1647 and 1750, about eight million tonnes of cod was taken from the Grand Banks.

The fish was preserved for the return journey using various types of salting.

Fishing capacity increased greatly with the introduction of steam trawlers from the 1870s onwards. This allowed the use of bigger nets, larger hold capacity and trawling at greater depths.

In 1925, Clarence Birdseye invented a system of freezing food at sea, which enabled the long-distance fleet to supply freshly frozen cod fillets to British consumers. This breakthrough, combined with the introduction of factory trawlers in 1950, led to a further dramatic increase in catches, with eight million tonnes taken in just 15 years.

In 1961, UK vessels caught 158,000 tonnes of cod in the Barents Sea. By 1970 this figure had increased to 181,000 tonnes, possibly due to the effects of the Cod Wars with Iceland and the dramatic reduction in opportunities there.

After nearly 60 years of decline in UK distant fishing since the 1960s, UK Fisheries has been investing substantially to revitalise the industry. The new fleet includes the freezer trawler Kirkella which catches, freezes and packages 780 tonnes of fish fillets on each trip and lands in Hull to supply the nation's fish & chip shops.


The future of UK distant waters fishing is now threatened by the paucity of quotas available in North Norway, NAFO and Greenland. Total available cod quota in distant waters for 2022 stands at 7,000 tonnes compared with 19,500 tonnes in 2018.