The 10Â or so fishermen I spoke to in Lyme Bay â that breathtakingly beautiful arc of unspoilt coastline between Portland Bill and Start Point that straddles Dorset and Devon â all told the same story. Fishing is in their blood, otherwise they wouldnât do it. But they are, to a man, concerned about the future of fishing, choked like detritus in a net by the Brussels-imposed bureaucracy of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the looming uncertainty of Brexit.
Their contempt for quotas is intense. The quantity and type of fish the men can catch is texted to them arbitrarily by DefraÂ on a weekly basis: break the rules and they will be fined by the fisheries inspector. After Brexit, their hope is that the UK can take back control of the quotas and fishing rights for the nationâs inshore fishermen. Matt Toms, a fisherman at West Bay who fishes up to 4-5 miles out, says: âIâm presuming weâll take control out to 12 miles [at the moment foreign vessels come up to the six-mile mark]. But we can only go up to 12 miles from the French coast.â So much for entente cordiale.
These are the guys who take their âunder-10sâÂ (boats less than 10 metres) out to fish for crab, lobster, bass, cod and skate (ray) from West Bay, Lyme Regis, Beer and Axmouth â just as their fathers and grandfathers did before them. Yet these small boats still have to comply with quotas set for the big trawlers that scoop up all marine life in their wake, leaving the seabed smooth and devoid of its natural ecosystems.
Harbourmaster at Axmouth, Angus Walker says: âThere are about 600 registered boats from big companies that get 96 per centÂ of the quota, leaving 3,000 independents in England with 4 per centÂ â itâs ludicrous. In the Channel we have zero rating this month and last month for cod so we canât catch any, yet there is loads in the sea. Weâve got to come up with a better system.â
Of course, no one knows what will happen post-Brexit. But there are rumours that tariffs of up to 8 per centÂ could be imposed on lobster and crab; environment secretary Michael Gove is asserting that no foreign boats will be allowed within six to 12 miles of the UK coast and that the UK will become an âindependent coastal stateâ, taking control of its waters up to 200 miles.
âWe will take back control of our territorial waters, and for the first time in 50 years, we will be able to grant fishing access for other countries on our terms,â adds Defra. âWe will allocate quotas on the basis of what is scientifically sustainable, making sure we have a healthy marine environment and profitable fishing industry.â
The fishermen remain cynical over such political promises. Dave Sales â now in his 80s â is still lifting pots over the side of his small boat, Shelley Marie. A direct, no-nonsense man, he is a big fish in the industry (pardon the pun), dropping environment secretary Michael Gove into conversation and consulting with fishing committees around the country. âI started fishing crab and lobster in Lyme Bay in 1957, and Iâve been in West Bay 37 years. When it comes to quota, the problem is that the government doesnât care two hoots about the small man, but we still have to abide by the rules and regulations.
âThereâs one word that describes the fishing industry and thatâs âgreedâ. There are so many small boats fishing out of Lyme now that in a couple of years there wonât be any fish left. Theyâre all using miles and miles of net. I look back and think âthank goodness Iâve had my dayâ.â
Angus agrees with Daveâs views on the government: âWith a pen, in an office, the attitude of Defra has done more damage in the past decade than fishermen have done in the past 1000 years. They focus too much on single species. The guy from the MMO (Marine Management Organisation) regularly comes down here and has a coffee with us to talk about the issues weâre facing, but I canât remember the last time I saw someone from Defra.â
Many of the fisherman I spoke to felt quotas should be axed for small boats. West Bay fisherman Jamie Smith says: âThereâs only so much you can do and the weather restricts us. The big boats threaten our livelihoods, as well as those of the boat builders, fuel suppliers and gear suppliers.â Matt takes a similar view. âThey may say itâs done for conservation issues, but to me the biggest conservation issue is the weather. If we canât go out, we canât catch the fish. If youâre looking to conserve the fish, start with reserves and the right method of fishing.â
Quotas arenât the only bugbear. Each boat also has to have a licence, based on its catch history, which becomes progressively more expensive as they are capped. Matt explains: âSome boats are only allowed 300kg of fish under quota; others can catch just shellfish, just fish or both. So if an uncapped licence comes up for sale itâs very expensive. Capping is also a way of taking out some of the boats that donât catch a huge amount. To buy a small boat like mine with bass entitlement costs a fortune. The boat might be worth ÂŁ10,000 but the licence can be ÂŁ30,000.â
Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of a charity, the Blue Marine Foundation (Blue). Set up in 2008 by some of the team behind the award-winning documentary The End of the Line including environmentalist Charles Clover, Blue creates large marine reserves worldwide to encourage sustainable fishing models and improve biodiversity. Its aim is to protect 10 per centÂ of the worldâs oceans by 2020 and 30 per cent by 2030.
The 206km sq Lyme Bay Fisheries and Conservation Reserve was established in 2008 after years of campaigning to stop trawling and dredging across certain types of ground. Persuading fishermen, conservationists, scientists and regulators to work collaboratively, Blue has proved there is a sweet spot between fishing and conservation where you can fish less but catch more with guaranteed quality.
Morven Robertson of Blue explains how it all began. âWe had a meeting in a cafeÂ in West Bay at which the fishermen almost chucked our UK Director Tim in the harbour. There had been years of trying to get this MPA (Marine Protected Area) created …Â Way before us, the Dorset Wildlife Trust had been campaigning because Lyme Bay has the UKâs largest population of pink sea fans, beautiful coral that supports lots of marine life, including juvenile scallops. Since the formation of the reserve, the population of pink sea fans has increased eight-fold.
âThe fishermen were worried about the way things were going and in 2008 the government agreed to create an MPA which pushed out all trawling and dredging. But then, other potters and netters started to fish in the reserve as they knew their nets wouldnât get damaged or their pots towed away. It created a honey pot â the area was saturated.
âSo the fishermen came to Blue and said that although the area had been protected they werenât seeing any benefit as there was too much potting and static gear â as a result, they were left fearing the imposition of a total ban on fishing and their livelihoods. We now have 32 boats and 59 fisherman signed up to our code of conduct, following sustainable fishing methods which conserve habitats and boost fish stocks. Other fishermen do work the bay, but if someone tries to put down too many pots they will tell them not to.â
Theyâve noticed the environmental benefits of the reserve, too. Axmouth fisherman Bob Carless says: âYou can see the effects the reserve is having on the seabed. Before you get out to the six-mile limit, the seabed is full of life, undulating, natural. But as soon as you hit the six mile mark, you can see where the dredgers have left it totally flat.â
The Marine Conservation Society compiles a national rating system that chefs and suppliers use as a go-to when finding out whatâs sustainable and what they should be cooking and eating. But, as Morven explains, itâs completely unfair for small fleets like Lyme. âOne of our fishermen sells to River Cottage and they are saying that John Dory is now a no-go as well, but ratings are based on available data often for other larger offshore fleets or boats using fishing methods we canât use here. To obtain a rating that accurately reflects local stocks and low impact of the inshore fleet Blue is gathering data on these species with the fishermen to provide credible evidence on which to base a local rating.
Just a few weeks ago the MSC, the global fisheries certification scheme announced that mackerel in the northeast Atlantic had been stripped of its blue tick. Now people are concerned we shouldnât eat mackerel either, but what about all the guys who catch it here in the summer, with rod and line. Is that sustainable?â
Forming the reserve has been hugely beneficial for the fishermen, in an industry where solidarity is vital, says Morven. âWe provide them with a route to market for sustainable fish, which they sell at a premium, and regular meetings; they often spend all day fishing alone, so itâs great to give them a voice.â Matt agrees: âWeâre sitting down with the MMO, the Fisheries etc and theyâre listening to us. That would never have happened before. Blue is giving us a mouthpiece.â
Even before Blue came along, the fishermen have always seen themselves as guardians of the deep. Jamie says: âThereâs no point in catching everything today or there will be nothing for tomorrow. Matt and I look at the sea as the bank. If you rob the bank, thereâs nothing left.â Matt agrees: âItâs our culture and heritage â itâs not just about money â so we have to fight to protect it. Weâre incredibly lucky to have the reserve, as itâs made it a much more viable proposition for the small boats to go out of here and earn a living.â
For Jim Newton, fishing out of Beer, sustainability is a given. âItâs our livelihood so we donât need to be told not to catch fish that are spawning. If cuttlefish eggs are found on our pots we have to leave them in the water â often for weeks â until they hatch, which of course affects our catch of lobster and crab.
âFor the past 20 years weâve also been collecting tons of plastic from the sea as it can clog up our nets and pots … Yet all that gets focused on is a tiny pile of fishing line. The number one plastic we find is those plastic beads used in packagingâ.
Morven explains that Blue has also helped define sustainability. âOur research showed that fishing with 250 pots is the sustainable level; any more damages the reef and sees a decline in lobster and crab. They were fishing with many more pots and wondering why the lobster stocks were crashing. Now weâve seen a 4.5-fold increase in lobster, which benefits everyone.âÂ
Charlie Ziemann, a fisherman in Axmouth, says: âTo me, sustainability means being able to go out again and again and again and catch the same amount of fish. Weâre not taking more than is being produced.â
On the back of the reserveâs success, Blue launched the Reserve Seafood brand in 2015, which now champions 29 species of premium, provenance-assured fish and seafood caught in Lyme Bay Reserve and sold to markets and restaurants across the UK. Fish in the reserve are caught by hand diving, static nets, pots or rod and line â mainly, lobster, crab, pollock and flat fish such as sole and plaice.
Paul Shearing, executive chef at Londonâs Roast restaurant in Borough Market, is an ambassador for Reserve Seafood. He says, âFor me itâs been a journey of discovery. I get my fish for the restaurant from all over the country … These days, with fish farming, you can get on the phone and specify exactly what size you want. So I came down here fishing last summer with my nine-year-old son Alfie and got chatting to the fishermen.
âOnce you get out here you realise sustainability is subjective, itâs not just a buzzword. What the government says, and what you hear in London, isnât necessarily true.
âItâs a bloody hard story … The guys canât earn money at some times of the year, theyâre out in all conditions. It made me realise how out of touch we chefs are to complain if a mackerel is 50g over the weight weâve asked for.Â Yet fish is a natural product, migratory and seasonal, so of course every fish is a different size.
He has seen, first hand, how unreliable quotas can be. âWhen I was out on the boat in Lyme with them they said âWe reckon you could walk across the sea bass round here thereâs so much of itâ.â
To showcase how wonderful this fish and seafood is, we gathered at the lovely Kingfisher pub in Colyton, run by fisherman Mark Dack and his wife, where Paul cooked up some fantastic seared scallops with black pudding, crab and apple, and pollock with beurre blanc: simple, quick, delicious food.
Blue also gives practical help. âWe built chiller units and installed ice machines, funded by the EU and maintained by the fishermen,â Morven explains.Â âThey used to pack their catch in coolboxes or cover it with wet carpet, then drive for three hours to Plymouth and back. They now put their fish in there and itâs taken off to Plymouth market three times a week. The chillers have been such a success that they now want to build another building next to the chiller with lobster tanks â at the moment, if the weatherâs rough lobsters are out in the pots rattling around, getting damaged or dying.
The next stage is to increase awareness of Reserve Seafood, with plans to display the logo where itâs sold and promote the brand through their website www.lymebayreserve.co.ukÂ complete with bios of the fisherman. The hope is that consumers will look out for the fish and create demand, as well as choosing to eat in restaurants that showcase this sustainable approach.
Technology has its place too. âThereâs an app on their phones and when they get on their boats they go through a geo-fence in the sky,â Morven explains. âSo you can see exactly where the fish was caught. We can map this data on top of the habitats, to see which parts of the reserve are important for certain fisheries … The rays seem to congregate on sandbanks; one year we saw that all the pollock were being caught on one particular reef. And if they fall overboard, their phones send an SOS signal.â
Itâs dangerous work all right but, talking to them, you sense they find the physical challenges quite exhilarating … Itâs hard to imagine any of them doing a conventional office job. Bob laughs: âSomeone recently told me Iâm living the dream, but then I showed him a video from the time on the boat when we had water coming in during a 5-6 [gale]. A guy had to crawl along the deck and manually pump the water out.â
Jim adds: âItâs what Iâve done all my life. My father and grandfather were fishermen, two of my uncles still fish. Brett, my cousin, fishes from Lyme. My son runs the shop. But I can see this finishing when I finish.
âYou used to get boys coming down here to mess about on the boats at weekends, helping the fishermen with odd jobs and learning about our lives. But they donât come now. Fishing isnât seen as a desirable career.â
He does admit itâs hard work:Â âIâve only been out for half a day this week, and wonât be going out again until Monday, so thatâs five days without fish â or income. We all have to have jobs on the side, such as building work and day tripping. And here in Beer we have to drag the boats up onto the beach using a tractor and wooden planks under the boats, greased with fat from the fish and chip shop.â
Despite the red tape, quotas, storms at sea and sheer unpredictability of what he does, seawater clearly runs through his veins. âPeople sometimes say âOh, youâre just a fishermanâ, but the job is highly skilled. You need to know where the fish are, how to predict the weather and stay safe.â
Itâs no surprise to learn that the fishermen look out for each other â just hearing their laughter and banter over whoâs the best fisherman and the best darts player reveals an incredibly strong bond. âEven if weâve been on a night out, weâll all pass by the harbour on the way home in our glad rags and count the boats to make sure everyoneâs in.â
Angus adds, âWeâve had fishermenâs societies down here since the 19th century. Most people donât really understand our world. We wouldnât expect joe public to know about it, but those in charge of the industry should. Yet DefraÂ canât even tell us how much fish there is in the sea.â
With so many obstacles and challenges, itâs easy to wonder why they still do it. Their comments were illuminating. Matt says, âIf you looked at it purely financially youâd go off and do something else. What I love most is being close to nature: nothing can beat seeing the sun rise over the sea.â
Bob in Axmouth agrees: âI love being out there with no one hassling you. Weâre the last of the hunter-gatherers. For me, itâs an escape. I turn my phone off and itâs just me and the sea. I go out sometimes in my little 5-metre boat â usually 18 miles or so, but it can be up to 28 miles â and come back with nothing. But when you go out mid-morning, the sun over the sea is beautiful. We see lots of gannet, dolphins, even a killer whale outside Lyme Regis Bay once.â Perhaps it was the man from Defra.
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