From time immemorial, subsistence fishing has been carried on throughout Scapa Flow. Little attention, however, was paid to commercial fishing, despite the rich pickings available in the fishing grounds surrounding the islands.
From the mid-18th century, local lairds were making a fortune from the production of kelp by burning the seaweed around their shores – in time of war Britain's main source of the chemicals vital for the developing glass and soap industries.
But it was left to Dutch and east Fife fisheries to make a good living from the fishing grounds around Orkney.
For a period in the 18th century, the Society of Free British Fishery, a London-based company, employed 300 Orkney men on its vessels. For part of the season they operated from Orkney catching herring and cod. The cod was salted and dried on Orkney beaches before transport to London. But when the company's charter lapsed, their Orkney fishermen were unemployed and “left to beg, steal or starve at home”.
The long war with France drove more English fishing companies north to safer waters. New markets for plentiful supplies of cod, haddock and shellfish were developed far beyond Orkney. The building of Orkney yole boats increased greatly.
From about 1775, lobsters were shipped live to London in well smacks by Selby & Company and the Northumberland Fishing Society. By the end of the century, between 100,000 and 120,000 lobsters were exported annually. A large number of yoles from Stromness and the Orkney Mainland and island communities surrounding Scapa Flow caught lobsters in nets fixed to iron hoops and baited with fish. In the early 1800s, lobster fishing spread from Scapa Flow to the North Isles.
The Thames Company started landing and curing cod in Burray in 1817. A government bounty led to the adoption of larger, partially-decked boats of between 12 and 35 tonnes. At the height of the fishery, in 1833, some 40 Orkney boats were fishing for cod.
The advantages of the local control of commercial fishing were dawning on Orcadians. By the 1790s a white fishery was organised by local merchants. Between 50,000 and 75,000 cod were caught annually in the Pentland Firth. In the year 1794, 1,000 dried ling were exported from Stromness. This trade continued into the early 20th century.
Following Samuel Laing's successful herring fishing established in Stronsay in 1816, The Holm Bay Fishing Company and the Stromness Herring Fishing Company were created around 1819, but these were not successful. It was not until the 1830s that a fleet of between 20 and 40 boats in Stromness fished for herring. Herring boats also sailed from St Mary's, Burray village, St Margaret's Hope and rural island communities.
From 1888 a boom in the Scottish herring fishing led hundreds of boats from the north-east of Scotland, chiefly the newly developed long-ranging Fifies and Zulus, to supply the dozens of fish curers who flocked north to rent piers and shore space for curing yards in Stromness, Burray village, St Mary's and St Margaret's Hope.
By 1890 the fleet belonging to Stromness fishermen included seven boats of 30 feet or more in length. In Stromness, the boatbuilder FW Stanger built the freestone seawall and wooden jetties at Ness to accommodate fish curers in that area, while J W Shearer employed seven coopers to make thousands of barrels each season.
Reduced herring shoals led to the end of the industry around Scapa Flow by World War I though, in the North Isles, Stronsay continued as a major herring port until 1937.