THE CRY OF THE SEA
June is fish month in Pembrokeshire, and barely a whisper of the greatest depletion the world faces, sea fish.
Yet awareness laps the skirts of County Hall and has trickled into the remote coves where dwell the few remaining hunters of the deep.
There are far fewer fisherman than in the days when fishing supported whole villages, and fed a culture of songs and stories performed nightly in the Hope and Anchor, Fisherman’s Rest or Sailor’s Safety.
Equipment developed for defence - sonar technology, satellite navigation, and depth sensors mean there is nowhere left for fish to hide. Amazingly this gargantuan effort catches 14 - 18 times less than at the peak of production, according to new research from
university. Even the sailing ships of 1889 brought home four times as much fish as today. The abundance of the oceans was thought to be unassailable, now there are doubts about the potential for recovery.
Skipper Sean Ryan says: “There’s very few trawlers left in
, it’s a pocket industry”. “Potting is what is left for Welsh fishermen, it has hardly any environmental impact” agrees Cliff Benson of the Sea Trust SW Wales. But it is the nature of fishermen to swarm to the food source, so the number of pots has exploded from hundreds to thousands in the shallow inshore seas.
Cliff warned me that I would find it hard to get fishermen to talk ‘They mistrust conservationists, getting them to act together is like herding cats”
I found they were dying to talk. It seemed they were too rarely listened to. The difficulty was catching them on the end of a phone.
‘You’ll have to phone at 5 to 9 tonight, he’s in the shower and fishing again at quarter past.” “You’ll catch him down the dock from
.” “Sorry I’m late emailing, been on the sea for 30 hours.”
These were not businessmen I was trying to meet, they were sea creatures. Their families of a kind, answering the phone while serving customers, processing crab, driving deliveries.
Their energy, freshness, exhilaration came down the phone, and so did passion. Angry passion at what they see happening to their harvesting grounds and feel helpless to stop. This is not just an industry that needs support for economic reasons, this is a way of life that it would be cultural genocide to loose
“I see it every day, the huge ships taking everything, they are from
. We are regulated, they are not“
What we do land is loaded straight onto ships for
. I can’t get local sea food for my restaurant on the Docks. It is madness.”
“The environmentalists have no idea of what we do. We are regulated by numskulls. Don’t quote me but I feel we need a revolution.”
“We have been fishing these same seas for 30 years. We take care of them, they are our back garden, they are as healthy as ever”.
On the other hand “Fishing is no longer a right, it is now a privilege.”
The sector is full of cross currents. There’s the regulation averse scallop dredgers, angry with the closure of seas to them. Others are proud of their new-found environmental direction. “I went to a talk on prawns put on by the Fishermen’s Association” said Nerys Edwards from Oneida Viviers “I learned about their life-cycle and the over fishing. Now I use a large mesh net to help the juveniles escape. We throw back a third of our catch, the young ones alive. Many will not make it to the bottom, but some do.” From Brunel Quay, Neylands her business buys from 70 fishermen and encourages responsible fishing. “Most fishermen get £13 - £17 kilo for prawns, we pay ours £20 for doing it the right way. The market has dropped with recession but we are not going back on this. Our best ships always put back the ‘berried’ lobsters with eggs and the juveniles” So the species is safe in their hands.
Others feel trapped between the cost of licences and the increasing part-time and leisure fishing. “They can have 5 pots each with no licence so they get them in the name of their families down to second cousins.” As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in Ulysses. ‘The Deep moans round with many voices’. ’Come my friends’, it continues ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.’
seas experienced a small seismic shift. The old Fisheries committees were dissolved and
took over its seas, passing them to the conservation organisations to manage while Welsh seas were taken over by the minister for rural affairs at the Assembly, Elin Jones. This meant action.
In March a flotilla of scallop dredgers descended on
, dredging night and day for the highly lucrative harvest. (The absence of shoal ‘wet’ fish means a price surge for tiny and strangely named species) The dredgers churn up the sea floor to evict the scallops along with other denizens of the deep, to conservationists’ dismay. The scollopers say dredging is like chain harrowing, while conservationists and pot fishermen prefer a ‘pulling up the trees to harvest the apples analogy.’ Elin acted quickly and most of
was closed to dredging until new measures were passed to control the size and range of ships in this protected area.
Sean Ryan is the only Pembrokeshire skipper with a ‘Responsible Fishing’ accreditation. He could sell everything to supermarkets, they are hassling him to. “I told Morrisons and Tesco to go away. They would drive the fish 700 miles for processing in Cornwall, and what’s sustainable about that?’ Ryan who lives near Crymych shares its feisty spirit. His fish go mostly to local outlets, like the fish and chip restaurant in Letterston, Somethings Cooking which is pushing the boat out to the green horizon. Trevor runs it and is replacing plastic packaging, buying Pembrokeshire potatoes and line caught fish from more sustainable seas. But he recognises there is still a huge challenge to realise a truly sustainable fish scene. He is part of organisations that would like to move in this direction, but know they cannot do it alone.
But there are deep rifts between the articulate conservation organisations, and the fishermen. The Inspector of Welsh fisheries says, “After getting up at
fishermen are in no mood for evening meetings. The conservationists have too much sway, we fear new closures of the seas to our fishermen.”
But really these two dissonant voices of the sea have a common cause in stopping the damage from EU trawling. Fishermen need a good calm organisation to represent them, navigate and forecast squalls and shoals ahead. North of Cardigan there is one, Cardigan Bay Fisherman’s Association with most of the fishing businesses as members. It uses Assembly money to buy processing equipment so fish landed can be sold locally, money staying in the communities, and also equipment to make fishing sustainable: Upmarket supermarkets sell ‘rope grown’ mussles so the Association supplies ropes tied between anchors and buoys. This replaces dredging with all the wasteful ‘by-catch’ and churning. It also bulk buys prawn nets with a mesh size large enough to let juveniles escape. This is much better than the usual fuel subsidies which publicly fund the destruction of the seas.
The Welsh Assembly is investing in understanding marine and river habitats and ecology and in sustainable fishing. Progressive engine size restrictions - the closer to land the smaller they have to be, should benefit small local fishermen, but the last hunter-gatherers of our isles experience regulations much as fish experience nets, a crippling disempowerment of a tribe whose ethos is freedom and opportunism.
Down at the docks in
there is the silence of a ghost town. Fancy boutiques with no-one going in, flocks of moored leisure ships tinkling meaninglessly. And old people with burning memories. ‘My father was a skipper, so was my uncle, my husband was a ships engineer.’ ‘You could walk across the bay over the trawlers, there was so much activity and fish.’ ‘We went down the docks, it was hard to find a path through all the slippery fish,’ ‘We made the nets at home, brought them to the boys and stopped to help fill the needles for the woman on the docks” John who runs the marine museum can barely let you go, he has so much history and pride to impart. Memories flare into life when you ask questions of older people at the bus stop, and a deep sense of loss. Four thousand skilled people worked in the fishing industry, there is a bone or two left.
Despite the churned and troubled waters there is a clear flow towards the ‘newer world’ of sustainable fishing. To restore the fish it will need to be strong enough to withstand the power of the dollar as sea food prices soar with increasing scarcity. There is a long way to go, but Welsh government has made a start.
The Isle of Man Minister for Fisheries regrets he does not have the powers of his Welsh counterpart;
“From 1st November on clear nights you may notice a mass of bright lights twinkling on the horizon and wonder what they are? They are the lights on the scallop boats from all over the
harvesting our scallops. I am particularly angry that (they are) allowed to come to Manx waters and undermine our efforts to develop a sustainable scallop industry”.