On the fishing net
Based on a text by Årstein Svihus
The fishing net is one of the oldest pieces of fishing equipment and one of Norway's most important traditional crafts. It is assumed that the first people to fish the coast more than 11000 years ago used fishing nets. By then, the technique had already been common knowledge on the continent for thousands of years. It is fair to assume that those seeking their fortune along new coasts brought with them the ability to weave nets to catch fish, seals and birds. This basic skill, which has since remained largely the same, involves tying knots. The production of a net starts with a knot, continues with knots, and is completed with a knot. This is called "net weaving". The distances between the knots determine the size of the mesh, which can vary depending on the size of the target fish species. Up until modern times, the mesh size has been indirectly indicated by the number of knots in a certain length (an ell or 594 mm). This method has been commonly used along the coast from the early Stone Age to modern times.
Even though the technique is virtually unchanged, the materials employed and their use have changed considerably. The oldest nets were likely made from intestines. Local plant fibres were later used, including nettles and linen. Imported hemp and, much later, spun cotton thread were used in the Middle Ages.
The types of net and their uses have naturally varied widely through the ages. An important distinction, however, is between seines and other kinds of nets. While a seine entraps a fish, other kinds of net entangle it. Seines have historically also been less flexible in use than other kinds of net. A seine could not be used in waters deeper than itself, had to be fixed to the shore and needed to be large. They were therefore more expensive to produce, more labour intensive to use and the catch needed to be shared with the owner of the land from where it was fixed.
A net can be small enough to be handled by one person. Working together, several nets can be connected to make an efficient linked net. Nets are also very flexible in terms of both fishing depth and target species. They can be set on the sea floor or at the surface, drift with the current or several nets can be set at various depths. Knowledge of the submarine landscape and fish migration patterns were traditionally combined with the precise use of floats. Sinkers extended fishing nets and held them in position below the surface. A feel for the tensile strength of fishing nets and whether they could be pulled up was crucial. If the catch was too heavy, the net could end up as a heap on the sea floor, and the catch would be lost. It would also be bitter to have to cut the leadline if the net became stuck on the sea floor.
The direct transfer of expertise in fishing and the production of fishing gear eventually became less important. In the early 1900s, motorised net drums replaced muscular strength in determining the size and length of fishing nets. With new materials such as plastic and nylon, almost all knowledge of the limitations of fishing net materials became redundant. Mesh size, length and fishing net depth are now more attuned to what fish stocks can bear than what the net material can carry.
The knot is still the core of the fishing net, and professional fishermen still need to mend nets that have ripped.