Fishing, which was Shetland’s main industry, continued despite the war. Earnings in the industry varied greatly over the year. The biggest part of the fishing was the summer herring fishery, which greatly exceeded the value of the white fishing. The war meant that both fisheries faced a number of significant problems.
The first effect of the war was the abrupt end to the herring season. Boats from outwith the islands made up much of the effort and they returned home promptly. Like the local fleet, much of their manpower was to be taken up by naval service. The neutral Dutch carried on their own fishing. Gutters and coopers became immediately unemployed, 80-100 jobs went as the barrel factories closed.
Total earnings for the year fell from £347,894 in 1913 to £319,510, a smaller amount than might be expected, but the latter part of the year generated less income in any case.
In 1915 total earnings fell dramatically to £74,408. Prices had risen, and the fleet peaked at 65 drifters prosecuting the herring fishery. Earnings for those fishing were good. Haddock prices doubled. And fishing earnings in the latter part of the year improved. Ominously, 15 drifters were sunk by a submarine.
In 1916 200 drifters were involved in what was to be the best year of the wartime fishery. The total for fishermen at the end of the year was £244,338. The Shetland herring fleet -- 71 sail-boats, two drifters, 12 motorboats -- earned an average of £1,100. Lerwick had been one of the few ports open for herring fishing.
1917 was different. Earnings fell to £110,297 for the year. The Admiralty had prohibited early season fishing and there were worries about enemy action. The haddock fishing had good prices in the early part of the year. By this stage in the war the government had banned the export of fish from Britain. In theory this should have put the Shetland effort in a good position, but exporting fresh fish from the islands was difficult because of remoteness and disrupted shipping.
By June 1918 the government had fixed fish prices. Food controls were an issue in Shetland, but the fish price seems to have stabilised returns. Submarine activity prevented herring fishing early in the year. The total catch was worth £49,040. The haddock catch was more valuable that year at £53,966. Poor quality meant that prices dropped at one point to five shillings a cran. The total fishing earnings for the year was £121,850.
Submarines and mine warfare had made fishing a difficult industry throughout the war. The most productive workers the industry had were called up by the Royal Navy, leaving old men and boys. Like the men, the most productive sector of the fishing fleet, a small number of steam drifters, were requisitioned by the Navy. The Admiralty also placed restrictions on fishing. Wartime inflation ensured that any increase in earnings was less than it seemed.
The herring industry pre-war had benefitted from the then European system. Once the war began access to the Russian, and obviously, German markets ended. Despite a worsening food supply situation in Britain, the herring fishing reduced in importance while the whitefishing increased, especially haddock. Even with the wartime constraints in manpower and vessels there was potential in the industry, but it was difficult to realise because of distance from the market, and problems with shipping.