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Hook, line and sinker

In a bowl to sea went wise men three, on a brilliant night in June. They carried a net, and their hearts were set on fishing up the moon.{c}

Surrounded by sea, fishing is inevitably part of our culture


SEE ALSO: This page describes fishing itself. The processing of caught fish for local consumption and export is described on our page Fish Processing.

Climate & Currents

1,500Km north of St Helena are the warm equatorial waters. These contain few nutrients for fish. To the south of the island there are also quite unproductive waters, as can be seen from the yachts coming up from Cape Town. These normally travel trolling with a line after the boat all the way up from Cape Town and rarely catch anything. So under normal circumstances there would not be any lucrative fishing to the north or south of St Helena.

What makes all the difference is the Benguela Current. This travels up the west coast of Southern Africa, bringing cold and nutritious waters until it meets the south heading Angola Current and turns north-west. The result flows just north of St Helena, supplying an influx of nutrition, mainly in form of plankton and everything living from it, including smaller fish. All of this is excellent food for our target fish - of which Tuna is certainly the most important.

Tuna does not like overly cold waters. It takes less energy to live in warm water than cold: you do not need to burn as many calories keeping yourself warm. But, like any other living thing, the Tuna must go where the food is. The waters just to our north provide a good compromise.

The primary places where commercial fish can normally by found around St Helena are the (relatively) nearby ‘seamounts’, Bonaparte and Cardno. These are shown on the map (right). The Bonaparte Seamount was discovered by Captain Tom Whatley in 1965 and the first experiment in offshore fishing there took place in August 1980 (using the John Melliss under Peter Fowler{1}). Here the Benguela Current is hitting from the south-east.

To make this more complicated, the currents are seasonal, changing throughout the year. In the summer the water from the Benguela Current does not reach as far north as it does in the winter. For St Helena, this is also a factor in our weather. In our winter, it is more likely to find fish at Cardno than at Bonaparte because the cold current is pushing further up in the warm belt of equatorial water at that time. Tuna does not particularly like being cold so it stays in the warmer waters further north. However, the Tuna needs food so the place for it to be is in the conversion zone between the warm and cold waters. And a seamount will force an upwelling of cold nutritious water from deeper water to the surface and this will be an hotspot of activity. The Tuna will feed from the small fish assembling in these hotspots.

So what is caught?

The fish landings for 2015 were as below (1987 figures are shown for comparison){d}:




























































ProportionsCaught Marlin

It can be seen that there has been an overall decline in catches of 37%, with dramatic falls in landings of all species except Tuna, which rose by 121%. This is further illustrated by the following chart:

Note that 2011 was as much an exceptionally good year as 2013 was a bad one. The relatively good years in 2004-2006 were when the MV Portzic and MV Atlantic Rose were operating.


Fishermen, undated

Inshore fishing has been practiced on St Helena since the island was settled, and probably since it was first inhabited. This from the Records:

The first record of proposed offshore fishing comes from July 1803:

There is no further mention of it in the Records, so it appears either that Governor Patton did not agree with this plan, or that it was not successful. The Bonaparte Seamount was discovered by Captain Tom Whatley in 1965 and the first experiment in offshore fishing there took place in August 1980 (using the John Melliss under Peter Fowler{1}). Fishing there started in earnest with the arrival of the MV Portzic in 2003.

These two photographs come from different sources but we think they show the same fishing boat making its way from upper-Jamestown to the sea. If so the date is 1968.


There are pictures of huge Tuna hanging on the galleys at The Wharf as late as the middle 20th Century. In the ‘before days’ fish were in abundance. Since then, 70-120 million tons of pilchards and anchovies, all of them good Tuna food, have been fished out of the rich waters of the Benguela current. The over fishing of the food of our prime resource has had an impact on St Helena. The old days of abundance will probably never come back.

More Fishy Things

Below: Sport FishingFishing from the rocksInshore FishingCunning FishFreshwater Fishing

Sport Fishing

Recent years have seen a growth in Sport Fishing from St Helena, with several operators offering trips to visitors. A typical full-day fishing trip starts at around 04:00 hours, to catch live bait for the day’s fishing. Then, heading out to the deep-sea you can fish for Tuna, Wahoo and seasonal fish such as Marlin and Dorado. Towards the afternoon the trip moves into shallow water to fish for various species of ground fish.

Fishing from the rocks

Many Saints simply go down to the shore and fish from the rocks, though these days this is mostly practiced by the older generation. The exception to this is Maundy Thursday, when special arrangements have to be made to cater for the volume of people fishing from The Wharf and at Ruperts.

Inshore Fishing

Very small volumes are landed by boats fishing inshore. Inshore fishing is mostly undertaken to supply bait for offshore fishing activities.

Cunning Fish

The ‘cunningfish’ is so-called because it gets bait off the hook without swallowing it…

Freshwater Fishing

There are no sizeable permanent-flow rivers or lakes on St Helena, so there is no natural freshwater fishing. However Trout have been introduced into some of the Reservoirs used by Connect Saint Helena Ltd. for water supply, and local anglers catch and eat them.

There are goldfish in the fountain in Castle Gardens but you are not supposed to catch them (tell that to Jamestown’s cats…).

Other information

Below: LawLocal and Scientific namesCommercial Fishermen’s AssociationMarine Centre

The Law

Spear fishing is prohibited off St Helena from 1st January to 31st March (inclusive).

The Protection Of Wrecks Ordinance

By law, all fish caught by commercial fishing must first be offered to the Fisheries Corporation (SHFC), which pays a set price per Kg depending on species. Only if the SHFC cannot or will not accept the catch may it be offered for sale on the open market{4}. Any fish acquired by SHFC in excess of that needed for local consumption is supposed to be processed for export.

Local and Scientific names

Grouper Epinephelus adscensionis
Grouper Epinephelus adscensionis{a}
Bastard Fivefinger chromis sanctaehelenae
Bastard Fivefinger chromis sanctaehelenae

Here are the commonest species, with their local and scientific names:

Offshore Species

Albacore Thunnus alalunga

Bigeye Thunnus obesus

Brown Spotted Grouper Epinephelus adscensionis

Bullseye Cookeolus japonicus

Mackerel Scomber japonicus

Marlin Makaira nigricans

Sailfish Istiophorus albicans

Skipjack tuna Katsuwonus pelamis

Wahoo Acanthocybium solandri

Yellowfin Thunnus albacares

Common Inshore Species

Blackfish Melichthys niger

Brim Kyphosus sectatrix

Cavalley Pilot Chromis multilineata

Devilfish Ophioblennius atlanticus atlanticus

Fivefinger Abudefduf saxatilis

Grannyfish Amblycirrhitus pinos

Gurnard Scorpaena plumieri

Old Wife Diplodus sargus

Rockspear Synodus synodus

Shitty Trooper Acanthurus bahianus{5}

Soapfish Rypticus saponaceus

Trantran Aulostomus strigosus

Target Inshore Species

Conger Gymnothorax moringa

Grouper/Jack Epinephelus adscensionis

Hardback Soldier Holocentrus adscensionis

Rock Bullseye Heteropriacanthus cruentatus

Softback/Bastard Soldier Myripristis jacobus

Endemic Inshore Species

Ascension Goby Priolepis ascensionis

Bastard Cavalley Pilot Stegastes sanctaehelenae

Bastard Cunningfish Chaetodon dichrous

Bastard Fivefinger Chromis sanctaehelenae

Bastard Hogfish Canthigaster sanctaehelenae

Cunningfish Chaetodon sanctaehelenae

Greenfish Thalassoma sanctaehelenae

Hogfish Acanthostracion notacanthus

Marmalade Razorfish Xyrichtys blanchardi

Parrotfish/Canaryfish Bodianus insularis

Red Mullet Apogon axillaris

Rockfish Sparisoma strigatum

Sand Greenfish Xyrichtys sanctaehelenae

In the 19th Century St Helena had a major role in whale ‘fishing’{6}. To learn more see our page Whaling.

St Helena Commercial Fishermen’s Association

Commercial Fishermen’s Association

The St Helena Commercial Fishermen’s Association{7} provides support for local commercial fishers and also lobbies for better economic conditions.

Marine Centre

A Marine Centre was opened on The Wharf in June 2022. Built with funding from the UK Government’s Blue Belt programme, its aim is to collect the scientific data necessary to conserve our marine environment. The conversion project on the former freight terminal began in July 2019.

Read More

Below: Article: A St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes TrueArticle: A Monster is Landed“Fish and Fisheries of Saint Helena Island”

Article: A St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes True

Published by Blue Marine Foundation, 20th February 2017{8}

Family Photo of Trevor Thomas
Family Photo of Trevor Thomas

In 1990, a fisherman, Trevor Otto Thomas, dressed himself in St Helena’s flag and led a march down Main Street in Jamestown, the island’s capital, to protest against a decision by his government to sell licences to Japanese industrial vessels which he believed would plunder the island’s waters. His family still have the petition he handed in to the governor.

As skipper of the offshore fishing vessel, the Westerdam, in the 1980s he had made an arrest at sea of a poacher and brought the vessel back to James Bay to show that St Helena’s waters were regularly being invaded. Thomas, who was born in Hout Bay, Cape Town to a St Helenian father and a South African mother, was that remarkable thing, a fisherman conservationist. In a picture of him revered by his family, he stands in fisherman’s dress tending a sick bird. Sadly Thomas did not live to see his wish come true - but his vision survived and became reality. Last autumn the waters of St Helena were declared a Marine Protected Area which will allow sustainable fishing only by local vessels, to protect both the island’s fish stocks and its rich marine diversity. Thomas’ son, Waylon, was in place as chairman of the fishermen’s association, and the decision has become his father’s legacy.

Anyone who loves the sea will find the story of Thomas father and son intensely moving, for it sums up the achievement of this remote island in the south Atlantic in taking a huge decision to restrict fishing to highly selective fishing methods used only by boats from the island.

In a world of declining tuna stocks, the idea resonates. It seems entirely reasonable to believe that it is possible to create a niche product for the island’s Yellowfin and Skipjack not unlike that which the island’s coffee already enjoys on the shelves of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. But first a lot of work must be done because right now St Helena’s fishermen sometimes get less than a pound a kilo for their tuna.

I was there on a fact-finding trip to see if Blue and our allies in the GB Oceans coalition could do anything to help the island now it has announced its intention to create a meaningful Marine Protected Area with sustainable fishing, thereby protecting St Helena’s extraordinary marine biodiversity. In theory, an MPA should enable St Helena’s fishermen to create a high-quality, low-volume tuna brand with appeal to markets in London and elsewhere where buyers are willing to pay top prices for tuna with a strong conservation story behind it.

On our trip I quizzed the governor, Lisa Phillips, about the airport, now due to open by June with smaller aircraft than the wide-bodied jets which were shown last year to suffer from wind-shear. The airport is only one of several changes coming to the island. A huge EU-funded £18m project to lay a fibre-optical cable from Cape Town should improve the island’s currently expensive and unreliable satellite broadband by 2020 making it easier to conduct business.

There is talk of new tourist developments and some are being built.

An upmarket South African hotel chain is converting three town houses on Jamestown’s lovely Georgian Main Street into a hotel. There is a proposal for a massive golf development - on land where thousands of South African prisoners were encamped during the Boer War - which seems less in tune with what this unique island has to offer. Despite the £30 million a year that Britain spends on St Helena - the overseas territories are meant to have first call on the overseas aid budget - it seems there is little spent on the rich heritage of historic fortifications, some of which are actively falling down. If tourists are to be lured by a marine reserve, and the opportunity to dive with Whale Sharks just outside the harbour, they are going to want other attractions to be in good shape.

At present the only way to St Helena is via its own now unique Royal Mail Ship, which leaves Cape Town and five days later arrives at the island. It then sails on to Ascension, from where some passengers fly back to England while some return to the Cape. The RMS, as it is called, gives an insight into a former age of ocean liners, with a rigid programme of deck quoits and beef tea at 11, followed by lunch, then a film, a quiz or other entertainments and then a six-course dinner. It is easy to become institutionalised into this pattern of being looked after and enjoyable to spend hours talking to the band of influential locals travelling back to the island. It is also all too easy to put on weight if you do not spend time in the boat’s gym.

When we boarded the ship again for Ascension, it felt extraordinarily like home. At present the plan is for the RMS St Helena (1990-2018) to be decommissioned next year after the airport opens and when a new cargo ship takes over the freight that it carries. There are few who will see it go without a pang of regret.

The island is full of surprises. Saint Helena’s cliffs seem vertiginous from the sea and the land looks impossibly arid. But after driving up hairpin bends there is a moment when you burst out into the valleys of the interior where everything is green and there are pairs of white fairy terns flying in perfect synchronization above the trees where they make their minimal equivalent of a nest by laying an egg on a bough. In a couple of hours’ tour with Kevin George, our expert guide, we were able to see several endemic and endangered plants - including he cabbage and she cabbage trees and ebony - and the island’s only endemic bird, the wire bird, a kind of plover named after its spindly legs. All will say of the island’s main tourist attractions, the sites associated with Napoleon who died on his final exile there, is that we noticed that these French possessions were pointedly flying the EU flag.

St Helena offers so much that is unique that it would be a shame to compromise it with the ordinary. Its new Marine Protected Area is a way of celebrating that uniqueness and potentially an example to the world. It deserves our recognition and support.

Article: A Monster is Landed

Published in the St Helena Wirebird{10} September 1963{8}

A Monster is Landed

The last time Wirebird reported the landing of a Marlin on St Helena was in April, 1956 when Mr P Roscoe, then a Rhodesian farmer, caught and landed a 352 pounder.

This does not suggest that a marlin, has not been caught and landed here since; we do not know one way or the other. What we do know is that today we have what is certainly a record for St Helena and that is the account of the catching and landing of a huge Black Marlin makaira marlina, caught by Mr Harold Wade of Half Tree Hollow, St Helena, better known to his friends as Spady Wade. Wirebird’s reporter interviewed Mr Wade who gave us the following account of the day’s happenings.

On the morning of the 5th September, 1963, Mr Wade with Messrs Maxwell Fuller and Edward Lawrence, left the Wharf to go on a day’s tunny fishing in boat No 22 owned by Mr Arthur George of Jamestown. They anchored on the tunny ground off Lighter Rock. They toiled all morning without getting any sign of a tunny around. Then at approximately mid-day Mr Wade got a pull on his hand line and at about 10 fathoms he hooked a fish which had taken in a dead mackerel as bait.

Immediately the monster took a run; at about 120 yards distant from the boat it partly surfaced which gave the fishermen an opportunity to identify it. Unmistakably it was a marlin. The fish continued on the run until it had taken out about 300 yards of a 21-thread hemp line - actually this was a number of lines spliced together. At this point it became less energetic and so the pull to the boat began. After approximately 25 minutes from the time it was hooked, the fish was brought safely and proudly alongside the boat where it was killed with a stab on the left side. It was then secured to a tow line and brought up to the Wharf. With the help of 12 men it was landed and on the Wharf where it was measured and weighed by Mr Charles Wade in the presence of many interested spectators.

The overall length was 16 feet 4 inches; the girth 7 feet 4 inches; tail span 5 feet 2 inches; gross weight 1,106lbs of which some 100lbs was gut.

Unfortunately the back of the head was somewhat chopped away but what remained was later re-weighed at Longwood Farm on a carefully tested Salter scale and found to be 104lbs. From the tip of the nasal spike to the front of the orbit was 39 inches.

After cleaning, the skull will be presented to the British Museum for its study collection. The carcase, having been acquired by the Agriculture and Forestry Department as fertiliser, was removed to Longwood Farm.

Congratulations Mr Wade for setting up a record for St Helena.

“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.


{a} Into The Blue{8}{b} Matt Joshua{c} Thomas Love Peacock{d} St Helena Statistics Office


{1} In addition to the skipper Peter Fowler and crew members Brian and Colin Young, the Fisheries Corporation General Manager Terry Richards, the Engineer Cyril Young and Captain Horst Timmreck of the yacht Brigitte went on the survey trip. - St Helena News Review, 8th August 1980.{2} Commonly known as the Spotted Moray.{3} Locally known as ‘Jack’.{4} It is a widely held view that the SHFC pays too little per Kg for supplied fish, and that this explains the decline in commercial fishing on St Helena. Recently the SHFC has started providing commercial fishing boats with subsidised diesel.{5} Is ‘Shitty Trooper’ a curious name for a fish? Apparently the fish were observed to congregate around the old sewage outflow pipe, so were assumed to be eating the outflow… Although good to eat, everybody avoided them. Actually Acanthurus bahianus feeds on algae, and of course there are far more algae around an outflow pipe.{6} Yes, we know - whales are mammals, not fish. That’s just what the industry was called at the time.{7} That should probably be changed to ‘St Helena Commercial Fisher’s Association’.{8} @@RepDis@@{9} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{10} The Government newspaper{9}.