It is 5.30 on a December morning as Andrew Pascoe casts off in Newlyn harbour, West Cornwall. An hour and a half later, as day breaks, his tiny boat reaches the Runnelstone, a popular fishing ground just off Britain’s most south-westerly point. For every minute of available light he fishes for sea bass using handlines, so it is seven in the evening and dark when he returns.
His tagged sea bass are stored in boxes full of ice, ready to be sold the following morning in Newlyn, England’s biggest fish market, where they will command a premium – sold with full provenance, traceability and showing that they have been caught in a sustainable, dolphin-friendly way.
The 36-year-old has sustainability written through his core like a piece of seaside rock. For this third generation of a Newlyn fishing family, fishing is a way of life. As a young boy there was nothing else he wanted to do and as soon as he could walk, all his spare time was spent messing about in boats and around Newlyn harbour.
As one of Cornwall’s younger fishermen, Pascoe understands the need for sustainable fishing, to respect and conserve fish stocks and to sell a quality product. Far from the perceived image of a fisherman who spends weeks at sea indiscriminately trawling the ocean floor, he has spent his life developing a range of methods that suit the seasons and the abundant and diverse range of fish and shellfish found around the Cornish coast. ‘Sustainability is the way forward, it has to be, really,’ he says.
Cornish fishermen have been fighting numerous battles for many years, including the negative image of deep sea trawling universally applied by the media and green groups to all fishermen – a growing backlash against the environmental damage caused by farmed sea bass, and that caused by the large French and Spanish pair-trawlers with their destructive by-catch of dolphins and porpoises.
Faced with this, Cornish bass fishermen realised that they were unable to sell their line-caught fish for the premium it deserves. To preserve their future, something had to be done so that people could distinguish their sustainable inshore bass fishery from farmed or trawler-caught fish. The solution was a tagging scheme devised by Andrew Pascoe and Nathan de Rozarieux, project director of Seafood Cornwall.
‘Nathan had seen some tagging for line-caught fish in France while on holiday, then I went over and saw for myself,’ Pascoe explains. ‘But they didn’t have the line-to-plate traceability or the provenance, and we could see that that was what customers wanted – a reassurance about what they are buying.’
Only handline caught bass can carry the tag, which shows the number of the boat that caught it, guaranteeing that it has been caught by a member of the South West Handline Fishermen’s Association (SWHFA). Funding from Seafish, Seafood Cornwall and Business Link paid for the first 10,000 tags and for a simple website explaining how this traditional fishing method works, and giving direct links between tags, fishermen and their boats. A core of around 10 small boat skippers signed up for a pilot project, and the scheme was launched in November 2005 at the London sushi restaurant, Moshi Moshi.
Traditional handline fishing is one of the oldest and most sustainable ways of fishing for mackerel, pollack and sea bass. Different types of line and hooks are used, according to the species. There is no bycatch and because the fish are caught live, any undersized ones are immediately put back in the water. The fish are quickly sorted, tagged and put into boxes of slush ice, which keeps them in the best possible condition. As this is mainly practised by small, inshore boats, fishing during daylight hours and no more than a mile from the coast, the environmental impact is minimal and the fish quality is superb.
As vice-chairman of the SWHFA, Pascoe had no problem encouraging other members who fished for sea bass of the merits of the scheme. The association was set up more than 20 years ago, initially to support boats handlining for mackerel, and its 50-plus members also handline for sea bass and pollack.
The timing of the new tagging scheme was good, as the Cornish fishing sector was recognising that it could benefit from selling smaller volumes of high quality fish, caught using sustainable fishing methods with a minimal environmental impact, while ensuring the future viability of fish stocks in the local waters.
‘There was a bit of doubt among the fish buyers, merchants and fishermen at the outset, but within a week there was a complete turnaround and the merchants were asking when the next boats were going to land,’ de Rozarieux says. ‘The hardcore fishermen who were not on the scheme were getting up to £1 per kilo less for untagged fish. If you’re landing 100 kilos a day that’s a lot to be losing.’
One year since the scheme was launched there are now 40 boats in the scheme, and earlier this year it was extended to include line-caught pollack. Andrew Pascoe is surprised and pleased that such a simple idea can have made such an improvement to fishermen’s incomes: ‘Although the catches overall have not been as good as last year, there’s been a reasonable amount of bass and the prices have been much higher.’
What he omits to say is that the tagged bass and pollack have made an unprecedented impact on the auction system. Where once fishermen were price takers, at the mercy of merchants and buyers, now those buyers are clamouring for the line-caught fish, and are forced to pay premium prices to reflect the imbalance between supply and demand.
The Cornish fishing fleet is mostly made up of small vessels, less than 10 metres long. Less than a third of the fleet consists of netters and bigger trawlers. Yet only around 10 per cent of the fishing quota for species caught in the waters around Cornwall (cod, sole, Dover sole, monkfish, hake, plaice, megrim sole, pollack, haddock, ling, coley and langoustines) is allocated to Cornish boats. The remaining quota goes to boats from France, Spain, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands – the result of Edward Heath giving away these rights to British fisheries when Britain joined the EU in 1973.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Andrew Pascoe has two boats. The first is Cynthia, a small 18ft cove boat, open to the elements, which he uses for handlining. The second, the 38ft Lamorna, he owns jointly with his brother James. This boat is used for netting, fishing for crawfish, lobster, monkfish and turbot in the summer, along with handlining for pollack. Later in the year they switch to fishing for tope and ling. The static nets have large mesh sizes that virtually eliminate any by-catch of undersized fish.
‘With netting you don’t have a by-catch of small immature fish, they’re fished in such a way that they do let everything through,’ he explains.
The monthly tidal pattern of fastrunning spring tides and slower neap tides imposes its own regulation on netters, effectively limiting their ability to fish to two weeks in each month. So for the other two weeks, weather permitting, he switches to the cove boat.
‘That’s always the best part. It’s more like a hobby, something I enjoy and would do even if I weren’t getting paid for it,’ says Pascoe. He may make it sound like a pleasant pastime, but every time he goes to sea he is at risk, in what is acknowledged as the world’s most dangerous peacetime occupation. Regardless of the size of boat this is a tough profession, mostly cold, nearly always wet, a constant struggle against the sea and the weather.
And despite the success of the tagging scheme, other forces threaten the Cornish fishermen’s precarious existence. Under pressure from the angling lobby, the Fisheries Minister, Ben Bradshaw, is planning to introduce a new minimum landing size for sea bass of 40cm – the current national minimum is 36cm, and in Cornwall it is 37cm under a local byelaw set by the regulatory Cornwall Sea Fisheries Committee. Andrew Pascoe has no argument with the higher sizes, recognising that this will help to protect and ensure healthy stocks in the long term. What makes him angry – and this encapsulates so many of the other issues dogging the Cornish fishing sector – is that this is not an EU-wide decision.
‘I don’t want to stop anyone else making a living,’ he says, ‘but unless these restrictions apply to everyone, you will still have the French and Spanish pair trawlers fishing right up to our 12-mile limit, making big catches of breeding stock and the smaller 36cm fish at the height of the breeding season. We need restrictions if not a ban on these mid-water pair trawlers.’
Pair trawling, with its destructive cetacean by-catch, was banned in 2004 for UK boats, but pairs of French and Spanish trawlers carry on regardless outside Britain’s territorial waters. This shows how the combination of the complex Common Fisheries Policy, run by Brussels bureaucrats, and its rigorous implementation by the UK government, constantly discriminates against Cornish fishermen, who work in what is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world.
Although technically there is a so-called six-mile limit inside which only the British inshore fishing fleet should operate, there are many French and Belgian boats with historic rights that allow them to fish inside that limit. Beyond that and the 12-mile UK territorial waters limit, it is well known that the French and Spanish authorities turn a blind eye to many bad practices – landing ‘black’, or illegal fish that have no quota, using illegal-sized nets, ignoring regulations and so on.
While Pascoe and the Cornish handline fishermen wait to see if Bradshaw will implement the new minimum landing sizes, the line-caught tagging scheme appears to have taken on a momentum of its own. More than 90 per cent of Cornish line-caught bass are now tagged, prices this year are 10 to 20 per cent higher than in 2005, and fishermen in Devon and Dorset are interested in joining the scheme.
Tagged Cornish sea bass and pollack are increasingly sought after by top chefs in Cornwall, in London – where Cornish fish already has a reputation for its quality – and across the UK. Many of the best fish processors and fishmongers now sell only the tagged fish. Requests for more information come in daily from around the UK.
‘Product quality is just as important as the method of capture as far as we’re concerned, really,’ Pascoe says. ‘I’m not saying everything else is bad but this is the best, you cannot get any better. It’s a Rolls Royce instead of a Ford Mondeo.’
And that perhaps is his next mission: to inspire us to eat fish with a clear conscience, while understanding that fish is no longer a commodity that is as cheap as chips, but deserving of its premium price.
Carol Trewin is the author of Cornish Fishing and Seafood (Alison Hodge, £14.95).
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007