a1 The Laboratory, Marine Biological Association, Citadel Hill, Plymouth PL1 2PB
The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid change in the natural sciences in Britain, reflecting changes in social conditions and improvements in education. A growing number of naturalists were becoming socially conscious and aware of the need for a proper study of the sea and its products, following the success of the ‘Challenger’ Expedition of 1872–6. In 1866 the Royal Commission on the Sea Fisheries, which included among its officers Professor T. H. Huxley, one of the new breed of professional scientists, had reported that fears of over-exploitation of the sea-fisheries were unfounded, and had recommended doing away with existing laws regulating fishing grounds and closed seasons. Nevertheless, the rising trade in fresh fish carried to towns by rail or by fast boats (fleeting), and the consequent increase in size and number of registered fishing vessels, was causing widespread concern, and there were reports from all round the coasts about the scarcity of particular fish, especially soles. This concern was expressed at the International Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, a conference called to discuss the commercial and scientific aspects of the fishing industry, attended by many active and first-rank scientists. However, in his opening address Professor Huxley discounted reports of scarcity of fish, and repeated the views of the Royal Commission of 1866: that, with existing methods of fishing, it was inconceivable that the great sea fisheries, such as those for cod, herring and mackerel, could ever be exhausted.
* The text of this article is reproduced with some additions and emendations from Rep. Trans. Devon. Ass. Advmt Sci., 116, 155–199 (1984) by kind permission of the Council of the Devonshire Association for Advancement of Science, Literature and Art.