blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]

Fish Processing

Exploiting our only natural resource

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]

There is no doubt that the year 1910 was an abnormally bad year for fish
Governor Gallwey, in the ‘Blue Book’{2} 1910

For more than a century St Helena has been trying to earn money from the sea

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

Emperor Brand Tuna, 2005 [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
Emperor Brand Tuna, 2005

Below: Early DaysMr Mosely’s curing businessBetween the warsInward InvestorsFisheries CorporationEmperor Brand TunaCrab Fishing - The Oman Sea OneArgos AtlanticFish Processing Today and the FutureRead More

Fishing itself is covered on our Fishing page. This page talks about attempts to exploit our only natural resource - the caught fish - into a viable export industry.

Early Days

Fishing on St Helena almost certainly dates back to our first inhabitant Fernão Lopez - it is hard to imagine that he didn’t suplement his diet with freshly-caught fish. And even as early as 1684 the East India Company proposed to the early settlers that fish should be salted, to preserve them for later consumption - probably the first Fish Processing proposal, though it doesn’t seem to have been acted upon. In those days the island’s economy was wholly dependent on the East India Company, who supported St Helena because of the island’s strategic value to support ships heading home from India and the Far East. The East India Company did sometimes suggest ways the islanders could do more to support themselves, but there was never any question of St Helena having to pay its way.

When the Crown took over in 1834, however, St Helena was no longer seen as a necessary expense. Successive Governors tried to find ways to make St Helena self-sufficient, and many of these are reported on our Industries page. The idea of starting a fish-curing business on St Helena was first discussed in the 1890s. The Morris Report in 1894 recommended curing fish for export and the use of larger boats to better exploit the windward fishing areas, but Governor Sterndale’s attempts to generate interest in the idea fell on deaf ears and nothing was developed. Indeed the 1898 ‘Blue Book’{2} reports that, due to higher wages, and presumably easier and safer working conditions, many had given up fishing and were working instead on military projects, such that the price of fish had trebled.

Incoming Governor Gallwey’s 1903 report confirmed that nobody on St Helena excepting himself believed that fishing and fish processing could ever become a profitable industry on St Helena. But Governor Gallwey was not deterred…

Mr Mosely’s curing business

Alfred Mosely CMG [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
Alfred Mosely CMG{a}

Mackerel processing on the Wharf, 1910 {1} [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
Mackerel processing on the Wharf, 1910{1}{a}

{b}In 1908 a friend of Governor Gallwey, a millionaire by the name of Alfred Mosely CMG became interested in developing industry on St Helena. Seeing the island surrounded by an apparently inexhaustible supply of fish, he decided the island should have a processing industry where freshly-caught fish could be prepared for export, bringing work and income to the island. So keen was he on his idea that, encouraged by an eager Governor Gallwey, Mr Mosely invested his own money in getting experts to review the plans and in setting up the ‘factory’ and equipping it with the necessary raw materials. But note that this ‘factory’ wasn’t a factory as we think of it because there was no building; fish were processed in the open air, as shown in the picture (right). The ‘factory’ opened on 26th February 1910.

Nothing could go wrong…but it did! Though exactly what did go wrong is a matter of some debate…

According to Gosse, although normally in plentiful supply, for the next ten months catches of mackerel, the target fish, were almost non-existent, and certainly far below what was needed for a viable industry. This was probably sourced (with some apparent exaggeration!) from the rather vague report by Governor Gallwey in the 1910 ‘Blue Book’{2} where he says “There is no doubt that the year 1910 was an abnormally bad year for fish of every description. The fishermen seem totally ignorant of why this should have been, while the superstitious put all such happenings down to the comet. During the 10 months the ‘factory’ was open, only 3,429 dozen of mackerel were delivered there”.

The hard facts, however, tell a different story. Mackerel catches in 1910 were actually higher than in 1909 - an average of 681 dozen per month in 1909 and 954 dozen per month in 1910. And although the fishermen sent most of their fish to the local market (where they earned 12d/dozen as opposed to the 3d/dozen the ‘factory’ was offering) still 98 barrels of cured fish was exported by the ‘factory’ to New York.

The problem seems to have been that, because of shipping costs, the 98 barrels that were exported were sold at an overall loss. It seems shipping costs were not considered when the economics of the ‘factory’ were assessed. Indeed{3} it’s probable that even if the fishermen had given their catches to the ‘factory’, it still could not have operated profitably. This was clearly an embarrassment for both Mr Mosely and Governor Gallwey, and explains the rather vague ‘Blue Book’{2} report.

Whatever the explanation, the ‘factory’ sat idle until early in 1911 when it was closed down and the project abandoned.

You can read an article about Mosely by Ian Bruce, published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{4}. 2017.

Interestingly, Mr Mosely also funded the purchase of steam-powered fish canning equipment, which as far as we can tell was never used. But the machinery did not go to waste

Between the wars

Stump, scyllarides herklotsii [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
scyllarides herklotsii

In the early 1930s a small trade was established exporting ‘Stumps’ (the local short-legged lobster, scyllarides herklotsii) to South America, but with the outbreak of World War 2 the trade was abandoned and never resumed.

Inward Investors

After World War 2 the Government of St Helena decided that the best way to proceed was with inward-investor capital (as Governor Gallwey and Mr Mosely had attempted). Three such fish processing attempts were made in the period 1947-1974, all on the same basic terms: an external company was granted rights to fish St Helena’s waters in exchange for them funding the setting up of a fish processing plant.

All three ventures failed:

1947

Christie’s Fish Supplies of Capetown obtained a licence to fish in St Helena waters with effect from 31st December 1947, but after a few months Christie’s decided catches were insufficient to justify the costs of setting up a processing plant and abandoned the project.

1955-1957

Ovenstones of Capetown obtained a licence to fish in St Helena waters with effect from 16th April 1955, initially processing with a small plant in Rupert’s Valley and later expanding to a larger factory which opened on 21st December 1956 at Ladder Hill. But catches did not support the larger plant and it closed on 30th October 1957.

1965-1974

Lastly Frank Robb & Associates St Helena Island (FRASHI) got a licence to fish from 2nd March 1965, again promising to open a processing plant when catches justified it. In 1967 it built in Rupert’s Valley some of the facilities now occupied by Fisheries, and brought in some new boats. In 1968 some fish was processed and exported, but the exports were not repeated and the expected growth in the industry never occurred. By 1973 the Government of St Helena was tired of waiting so the company was forced to surrender its licence on 22nd October 1974.

Fisheries Corporation

In the Cold Store [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
In the Cold Store

Following these attempts the inward-investor approch was abandoned. The UK Government sent specialists from a UK fishing company Fisheries Development Limited (FDL) and from September 1976 until October 1978 the FDL team came to St Helena and studied how fishing was conducted here. They concluded that nothing much had changed since Governor Gallwey’s study in 1903 and recommended that a change be made to how fish was sold on St Helena. Instead of individual fishermen selling their catches in The Market or via small shops, a single entity would buy all the fish caught and organise its processing and sale to the public. As was the nature of Government in those days, it was proposed that it be made illegal for a fisherman to sell his catch to anybody but the central authority. In this way, FDL argued, the fishermen would receive a more reliable price for their fish and the price of fish to the public would be more consistent.

Fisheries Logo [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
Fisheries Logo

In response to FDL’s report, in June 1977 the Government of St Helena set up the Jubilee Cold Store, a facility in Rupert’s Valley to buy fish from independent local fishermen and sell it both on St Helena and also abroad. In November 1979 it set up the Fisheries Corporation to manage the business. Unfortunately for the plan, the costs of maintaining these facilities, plus salary for the Fisheries employees, resulted in the retail price of fish more than doubling in the first year of operation, causing considerable negative comment from fishermen and fish consumers. For a time some fishermen simply ignored the Fisheries and continued selling their fish direct to the public, thus risking prosecution (though it seems nobody actually ended up in court). In time, however, things setlled down, but the changes only altered the way fish was caught and consumed on St Helena. They did not generate the much-desired export industry.

The Jubilee Cold Store facility was destroyed by fire in August 1981 - apparently by accident (see Article below) - and re-built in 1982 with UK Government emergency funds.

After yet another expert review and report, in 1984 a moderately successful industry was established exporting salt-dried Skipjack Tuna to Capetown, though the impact on St Helena’s overall finances was negligible.

Albacore [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]Yellow-fin Tuna [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]Skipjack [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]Bigeye Tuna [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]Wahoo [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]

Emperor Brand Tuna

Canning Tuna [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]

A tuna canning industry did start on St Helena in September 1984, moving to a purpose-built factory in Rupert’s Valley that opened on 11th November 1987. It used the ‘Salmon process’, where a solid piece of fish (in this case, Tuna) is cooked in the tin. Indeed, the new factory apparently used Mosely’s original equipment, converted from steam to electricity!

‘Emperor Brand Tuna’ (photo, above) was a moderately successful export, and continued for more than 25 years. The factory was closed in February 2012 when the costs of complying with new food hygeine regulations made the business unviable.

Crab Fishing - The Oman Sea One

The Oman Sea One was a deep-sea crab-fishing trawler, brought to St Helena in 1991 to fish crabs for export. Starting in July 1991, the venture was short-lived. On 31st August 1991, while on her return journey from the Cardno Sea Mount, she foundered in heavy seas around 160Km NW of St Helena. Of the 17 crew, four did not survive and with the loss of the ship the project ended. There is more about the incident on our Lost Ships page.

Argos Atlantic

Argos Atlantic [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
Argos Atlantic’s Facility [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
Argos Atlantic’s Facility

In June 1998 an agreement was signed by the Government of St Helena whereby a new company, Argos Atlantic Cold Store Ltd., initially funded from the UK, would begin processing fish for export. Argos would not provide its own fishing vessels; like the Fisheries Corporation it would purchase catches from the local fleet. Exported fish would be shipped via the RMS St Helena to Vigo in Northern Spain to be marketed and distributed. The expanded Cold Store facility was officially opened on 29th February 2000. As with so many others on this page, initial results were promising. Argos seemed able to take all the island’s catch and more. The fishing industry expanded with the addition of offshore boats, including the Portzic and Atlantic Rose. Income to the Government of St Helena budget was significant, though not vast; fish export values rose to a peak of £878,000 in 2011.

But at the beginning of the next decade problems began to appear. The loss of the offshore fleet{5} seriously reduced catches, and the rising cost of fuel set against static prices for exported fish on the world market made operation marginal, and for some fishermen un-viable. The Government of St Helena purchased its own fishing vessel, the MV Extractor, in December 2013, but this suffered operational difficulties. Other vessels joined the fleet but catches remained depressed. Argos itself brought in an experimental vessel in 2014 but it could not rescue the situation and in 2015 Argos Atlantic announced that it would not renew its agreement with the Government of St Helena, which would expire on 26th April, and the facility would close.

The Government of St Helena purchased the fish processing plant from Argos to continue processing fish for local consumption and export.

Fish Processing Today and the Future

01/01/2017 to 30/09/2017{c}

Bigeye Tuna: 

36,000Kg

Yellowfin Tuna: 

117,000Kg

Other: 

12,000Kg

Total: 

165,000Kg

Fish is currently caught both for local consumption and for export - to Spain, Portugal and South Africa. It is processed at the former-Argos plant and sold in local shops. 165,000Kg was exported in the first nine months of 2017 (table, right; see detail).

Will this change? Speculation is always dangerous, but on balance we think it will not. The emphasis today for St Helena is on tourism and the world-market for fish is based on large volumes with which St Helena could not hope to compete. Unlike our Coffee there is nothing particularly special about Tuna caught near St Helena compared with the same fish caught elsewhere in the world. So unless somebody discovers a new fish species which is tasty, endemic and in sufficient numbers to be safe to export without endangering the species, we think fish-for-export will never be a major income-earner for St Helena.

Read More

Below: Article: “Fire Disaster at the Jubilee Cold Store”Article: “Argos Official Opening”“Fish and Fisheries of Saint Helena Island”

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Article: “Fire Disaster at the Jubilee Cold Store”

News Review Banner [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]

Published in the St Helena News Review 21st August 1981{6}

In the early hours of Saturday the 15th of August three explosions shattered the peace of the night and alerted the community to the fire raging within the machinery (‘plant’) room of the Jubilee Cold Store. This building, the headquarters of the St Helena Fisheries Corporation, was only opened on June 7th 1977. When the Fire Brigade and Ambulance arrived they were met by an inferno without precedent on the Island. With much volunteer help the Brigade, led by Sergeant K F Leo, fought the blaze for over two hours but could not prevent the complete destruction of the plant room and all its equipment, extensive damage to the main building including the destruction of the fruit and vegetable chill store (which contained over £4,000 worth of cheese, plus merchants’ stores of butter, margarine, salami, bacon and beer) and slight damage to the fish chill store and the blast freezer’s insulation. The entire roof will have to be replaced but the frame of the building appears to have withstood the ravages of the flames and explosions. The overall loss has been estimated at around £100,000.

Although some 500lbs of fish which was in the fish chill store had to be dumped along with other items that had escaped the flames but could have been contaminated by fumes, the 12-15 tons of frozen fish completely sealed in the freezer at the opposite end of the Cold Store to the plant room was totally unaffected. This fish, the Island’s ‘larder’ during the out-of-season fishing months, was removed to the Fisheries Corporation Cold Storage facilities in Ruperts Bay early this week after being tested and passed fit by the Public Health Laboratory Service. The Corporation’s retail outlets have not been affected by the disaster and sales of fresh mackerel as well as frozen fish have been made around the Island as normal. However, the Corporation now has no machinery to chill or freeze freshly-caught fish at the Jubilee Cold Store and so it no longer has the capability to handle large fish catches.

Governor Massingham and many Departmental Heads were at the scene of the fire shortly after 4am along with Mr John Musk MLC, the Chairman of the Fisheries Corporation, Mr Terrence Richards, the Corporation’s General Manager, and many of the Corporation’s staff and fishermen. Some of the latter were moved to tears by the tragedy occurring before their eyes.

During the day, cleaning-up operations were set in motion and by late Saturday afternoon, the main building had been cleared of the debris. The gutted remains of the plant room, where the fire appears to have been centred, have been left untouched pending investigations into the cause of the fire. No watch-keeping personnel were on duty at the time of the blast and fire and the only injuries suffered were minor cuts and grazes by several firemen.

Although saddened and shocked by this body-blow to the Corporation just after the most successful period in its short history, Councillor Musk and Mr Richards both stressed that, like the Phoenix, the Corporation would rise from the ashes. Their prompt action in setting-up the Ruperts facilities and assuring the public of continued supplies of fish even though beset with problems reflects the tenacity, flexibility and competence of the Corporation’s management and staff. The Corporation have asked that we publish their grateful thanks to all who helped during and after the blaze, including Solomon and Co. Ltd, who offerred the use of their refrigerated container as a fish store. We, in turn, on behalf of the community express our sorrow at this tremendous loss to the Corporation and wish it a speedy return to normality and future prosperity.

Article: “Argos Official Opening”

Published in the St Helena News 3rd March 2000{6}

Argos Workforce [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
Argos Workforce

Last Tuesday, 29th February at Ruperts Valley, the long awaited opening of the Argos complex took place. 120 invited guests assembled outside the enormous building, which had just been given a wash courtesy of the Fire Department. HE the Acting Governor, Mr Clancy, Bishop John Salt, Executive and Legislative Councillors, Senior members of the Administration, the management of SHDA, Heads of Departments and NGOs, Members of the Fishermen’s Association and of course the work force who had constructed the building. Mr Peter Thomson of Argos Atlantic Cold Stores Ltd welcomed everyone and expressed his great pleasure at being present at this memorable event, which was the result of four years of negotiations and extremely hard work by all concerned. He went on to say that in the beginning a great many factors had to be carefully considered as there were considerable risks involved in a project of this size not least of which was would there be enough fish. He went on to thank everyone involved for making the project such a success and closed by urging the fishermen to start bringing the fish in. He then invited Mr Clancy, the Acting Governor to say a few words. Mr Clancy began by saying how delighted he was to be present at the opening. He said that it had been important St Helenians had been directly employed in the construction of the very impressive building and that they would continue to be employed in the actual operation of the complex including the technical and managerial side.

Apart from direct employment the project will sustain or generate additional employment opportunities in the fishing industry. He reminded the fishermen present of the times when the Fisheries Corporation had had to impose quotas on the fish that they could take. This should now be a thing of the past. Argos should be able to take all the Tuna that the fishermen can catch. The potential for earnings to rise and the greater spending should have positive ripple effects throughout the economy. The project should have a very positive effect on employment prospects. The Argos project has acted as a flagship for inward investment. In the past inward investors have been discouraged by the access arrangements. We can now use this magnificent building as an indication of Argos Helena’s faith in the product of St Helena’s seas and the skill of its workers.

He complimented everyone on the high level of teamwork involved in bringing the project to fruition. It had been a multi-agency effort, which had included government departments, politicians, SHDA and the Fisheries Corporation and of course Argos all working closely together. The Attorney General played an important part in ensuring that the three agreements that had been signed were consistent. There had been a few challenges as the building went up, not least the breakdown of the RMS, but Gilbert Yon as SHDA project manager and Hugh Dowdall as Argos Project Manager working closely with Denzil Yon, the contractor, and his team of workers had risen to these challenges with professionalism and skill.

He closed by saying how pleased he was to have been associated with the project in the 2½ years he has been on the island and that seeing this very fine project come to fruition was particularly gratifying.

Mr Clancy closed his remarks by thanking all those who had been involved and wished the enterprise every success for the good of Argos Helena and St Helena.

HE Acting Governor declared the building open [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]
HE Acting Governor declared the building open

Mr Gilbert Yon, the project manager for SHDA provided some of the background to the development, and said the it was Stuart Mosey who made the initial approach to Argos, and Gilbert, whilst on training in the UK visited Argos to determine whether or not they were interested in the fishing industry in St Helena. A further two years of negotiations and discussions leading to the signing of agreements in June 1998. Work on the site commenced in November 1998 and tenders for the construction of the building were finalised in January 1999. And DGY Building Contractors were successful. Gilbert praised Denzil Yon and his multi-skilled work force for their enthusiasm. The project provided employment for over twenty people during construction.

He closed by wishing all the agencies involved the best of luck, a fruitful future and tonnes of fish.

Hugh Dowdall expressed his relief that the day had at last arrived when the building could be opened. There were still some jobs to do but they would not take long to complete. A tremendous amount of hard work had been done by all concerned. It would not be long before the complex would be ready to receive its first consignments of fish.

HE the Acting Governor then pushed open the large steel door leading to the reception area and declared the building officially open.

The building had gone through a substantial improvement and clean up since the last time St Helena News visited. Guests were free to look round and have a drink and something to eat. Everyone was extremely impressed by the size of the place and the finish of the interior. The whole building has been quite a feat of engineering and ingenuity. And all those who took part in the project will justifiably look back on Tuesday, 29th February 2000 with a degree of pride.

“Fish and Fisheries of Saint Helena Island”

Much useful information can be gained from the book “Fish and Fisheries of Saint Helena Island” by Alasdair Edwards, published in 1990 (ISBN 0-9516480-0-4) - if you can get hold of a copy!

Although published , the sections describing the history of fishing on St Helena up to the end of the 1980s, and the detail on the fish that inhabit our waters, still provide useful reading.

The optimistic tone when describing the future of St Helena’s fishing industry reflects the feeling at the time.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]

Laugh at funny fishprocessing humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Fish Processing]


Credits:

{a} Ian Bruce

{b} Our thanks to Ian Bruce for support and the figures used in preparing this section.

{c} SHFC - see detail.



Footnotes:

{1} The environment here falls a long way short of current food-hygiene regulations!

{2} Formally the ‘Colonial Annual Report’ - a document setting out the island’s income, expenditure and other administrative matters for the year. Signed by the Governor or acting Governor usually in April-June of the year following.

{3} As is explained in the Article by Ian Bruce.

{4} There are three ‘Wirebird’ publications that should not be confused: The Government Newspaper (1955-1966), the Tourist Office Blog (current) and the Magazine of Friends of St Helena (current).

{5} Atlantic Rose broke from its moorings, ran aground and could not be saved; Portzic became too expensive to maintain and was scuttled.

{6} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.



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