From Daily Mail: Save our fisherman! Britain is surrounded by fish yet we eat salmon from America and prawns from Denmark
Cadgwith is one of the last true fishing villages in Britain. The eight Cornish fishing boats on the beach represent another way of life. The men who skipper and crew them are the latest in a line of fishermen stretching back 1,000 years.
They are a proud tribe that still fish in a sustainable, uniquely co-operative manner. Over the course of a year, I became one of them, trying to make the unlikely transformation from soft-palmed ex-public school boy into Cornish fisherman working the Atlantic off the tip of a mighty headland.
My guide and mentor was Nigel Legge, 61, who has been fishing all his life and who could trace his ancestry back to the very origins of Cadgwith. He had agreed to take me on as his apprentice. His boat, Razorbill, was a robust 18-footer painted a fetching white and light blue, a russet-coloured sail wrapped around its small mizzen mast.
‘Right, Mont,’ said Nigel, with Razorbill moving sharply ahead of a bustling wake, ‘I can’t help noticing you’re wearing lots of green. Bad luck at sea that is.’
‘But Nige,’ I pointed out hesitantly, ‘you’re wearing green wellies.’ ‘They’re not green,’ he said firmly. ‘They’re olive.’
After working the pots, we would return with tubs of crab crammed on deck, clicking and crawling over one another. Another tub would be set aside for lobster, the prime catch of any trip. Just outside our home cove we would lift a much larger pot marked by a brightly coloured buoy. This was the store pot where the crabs or lobsters would be kept until Nige’s order book filled and they could be sold on.
Fish that masquerades as ‘fresh’ in a UK supermarket is frequently anything but. Most of it goes through four stages. In the first it is caught. In the second it undergoes primary processing, which mainly involves being gutted. This takes place either at sea in large processing vessels, or in shore-based facilities in places such as Eastern Europe or the Far East, due to the cheap labour. The third stage is when the fish is deboned, breaded, cooked and packaged. The final stage is export to a grateful consumer, who may well live very close to where the fish was originally caught, but it will have more air miles than Alan Whicker.
Between stages three and four the fish is stored. International trading in fish takes place in units called ‘blocks’ – a neat term for a 16lb lump of ‘ready meal’ frozen fish, which may consist of fillets, flesh or indeed entire fish. A block may have a succession of owners during the course of trading, and can be stored for anything from three to five months. In a notorious case, food officials found a warehouse in Lincolnshire with blocks that were five years old.
Inevitably, with a supply chain that snakes around the world, the original source of the fish we eat becomes somewhat lost. How about some lovely Pacific cod, anyone? They’re more sustainable than their heavily fished Atlantic counterparts, as labelled on a fish counter in one of the major British supermarkets. The snag is that 20 per cent of them are actually Atlantic cod. Scampi? Always a winner, but not when you learn that it contains only 18 per cent scampi, the rest made up of Heaven only knows what.
Good old fish and chips? You can’t go wrong with that, surely? Well, only if when you’re ordering you say, ‘I’d like some battered pangasius please’ – or Vietnamese river cobbler, as you might call it. Once the demand for fish is deemed sufficient, the blocks in the holding facilities are released and turned into what we ultimately buy: a fillet that may be several months old, frequently sourced from overseas, processed overseas and then sold in a packet with a picture of a brightly painted fishing boat on it.
In 2007, the UK imported 672,000 tons of fish, worth £1.76 billion. In the same period our fleet caught 366,000 tons of fish, worth £368 million. Almost two-thirds of what we eat is not caught by our fishermen.
We live on an island in the cold, rich waters of the North Atlantic, with one of the longest traditions of fishing of any nation on Earth. And yet as we sit down to dinner we eat cod and haddock from Iceland and we tuck into salmon from Norway and America. We make salads out of cold-water prawns from Denmark, as well as tuna from Mauritius and the Seychelles. For a little treat we have warm-water prawns from Thailand, India and Bangladesh. And as we do so, our own small-boat fishermen are dumping overboard 40 to 50 per cent of the fish they catch due to quota restrictions, and are quietly going out of business.
I went out with Danny Phillips on Scorpio, a sky-blue boat that even to my untrained eye gave the impression of order and compact efficiency. But halfway through untangling an immense crab from the net, I felt the blood draining from my face and a wave of nausea rising from my stomach. I dropped the crab and discharged breakfast into the sea a few feet below.
Danny glanced up in surprise. ‘You all right there, Mont?’ he asked.
I nodded dumbly and wobbled off to slump against the rear bulkhead. As I lay there, I saw giant monkfish, speckled rays, cod, crabs and lobster frisbee past my feet to the holding boxes at the stern. I passed out and awoke to find I was rolling in the freezing waters of the scuppers. Attached to my hand was a large monkfish, worrying my fingers like a demented terrier. In one of the wilder pitches of the boat, my flaccid form had washed up against a box containing several very annoyed fish.
Newlyn is one of the final bastions of large-scale fishing in England, with more registered vessels than any other port in the country: 619 in 2010, of which 75 are at least ten metres long. One of these was called Billy Rowney and her skipper took me on board for a week.
We would be fishing 60 miles to the southwest of Newlyn, charging into the swells that churned the ocean into grey mountains and valleys. My bunk was like a wardrobe lying on one side, with a ragged curtain to provide a semblance of privacy. I had taken seasickness tablets of hallucinogenic strength and had some of the most kaleidoscopic dreams I have ever experienced. At last, though, after eight hours of fitful sleep, the roar of the engines dropped to a rumble. We had arrived. I climbed into my boots, oilskins and life jacket before pulling on thick gloves for the work ahead. Imagine three large men trying to get dressed in a cupboard being pushed from side to side by an escaped lunatic.
I stumbled out into a dark Atlantic night and weaved my way to the covered forward section of the boat, known as the whaleback. Here, I watched the crew swing into action. Beam trawling is just what it sounds like: two massive metal beams are pulled along the seabed trailing a network of chains. The great weight of the beam – six tons each side – keeps it close to the seabed, while the chains force any creatures living there to flee upwards into the open mouth of the netting pulled behind.
Deploying the gear was extremely dangerous. Working on a canted floor, as a jet-black ocean hissed and snarled only yards away, they carefully guided six tons of clanking, swaying metal over each side. For the next week we would work unrelentingly through the night. Our entire world was represented by the pool of light cast by powerful lamps while the constant bass backing-track of the engines was offset by the high whine of the net winches. I felt intensely vulnerable, far from home in the dead of night, in a great ocean, entirely out of my depth.
Abruptly the winches changed their tone as the nets were lifted out of the sea to hover over the deck, heavy with the catch, water pouring from the mesh to sluice into the scuppers. The crew moved quickly, and as the net sprang open an avalanche of marine life skittered and sprawled across the planks. This was one haul, there would be at least 50 more over the course of this week.
The deck heaved with the gigantic grey forms of highly prized monkfish, while slithering among them were two or three large conger eels. Haddock thrashed in their death throes, with scores of megrim sole flipping and twitching. Two large cod gasped, their lives pointlessly lost in the face of complex quota legislation. I saw a crewman lift one over the side, shaking his head in disgust.
There are stories that this generation of fishermen may be our last. With the average wage in Cornwall about £21,000 and the average age of a UK fisherman being 49, there is little enthusiasm from the next generation. Most fishermen want to hand on their boats to their sons, so they are keen to keep Britain’s fishing grounds healthy. But we are looking at the demise of the fishing industry as we know it. At the heart of it is an impossible matrix of contradictory data from scientific bodies, the fishermen themselves and various legislative groups.
In the deluge of rules and regulations to control the activities of larger vessels, small boats such as Razorbill, which make up nearly 80 per cent of our fishing fleet, have been ignored. Here are vessels with limited range that support local communities and work traditional fishing grounds. Their unique qualities – the freshness, sustainability and seasonality of their catch – epitomise everything we desire from our seafood.
And yet as the links between the people of Britain and the sea that surrounds them grow ever more tenuous, we could lose these boats. How do we save these men and this ancient fleet, the last hunter- gatherers on our island?
Two things are acknowledged by the scientists, the Government and the fishermen themselves. The first is that present legislation is ineffective. The second is that fish stocks need protecting. For me it seems logical that we introduce areas – marine conservation zones – where fishing activity should be limited or indeed stopped altogether until stocks recover. Of course, compensation will be necessary for the time needed for the zones to take effect.
This may take many years, but we might extend the life of the fleet to the next generation and beyond, a priceless gift to our proud seafaring traditions.
We must also rediscover our connection with our fishing fleet. It is nonsensical for British families to eat so much fish from overseas. There is a vast array of flavours and textures in the seas around our island, yet we throw so much of it away. I yearn for the day when we eat seasonal fish caught close to shore by sustainable means. We would ease the pressure on a few desperately over exploited species, reduce waste, and perhaps save a way of life that does so much to define us.
The Fisherman’s Apprentice With Monty Halls is on BBC2 at 7pm on Wednesday. The book of the same name is available at £20 from AA Publishing. To order your copy for £16.99 inc p&p, call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit MailShop.co.uk/books.