Writing about our homegrown seafood and tracing its journey from the fishing grounds to the kitchen, is a pursuit that continues to enthral me in a way that really casts my other lifetime’s exploits into the shadows. Not that I’ve been dissatisfied with anything I’ve accomplished over the years, quite the contrary in fact. However, increasingly, I find an old and slumbering passion has been awakened, that has to be justified and I’m now in the rather enviable position of having to embrace the whole concept of food writing as a necessary and fundamentally important side to me.
I’m drawn to fishing towns by a surreal kind of magnetism. I can literally spend hours in the company of fishermen or just whiling the time away, picking my way along harbour walls and pontoons, studying and musing on the myriad of different craft and techniques employed by this most fascinating of industries. Sometimes I become rather conscious of the fact that my presence might not always be welcome or I might be asking too much, or actually be getting in the way, but I realise that is just my own persona at work and when I visit ports such as Newlyn, I’m often find that it’s actually very much the opposite case and my appearance is definitely welcomed and with an eagerness and a charisma that’s hard to define.
With our annual Cornwall foray making its base camp in the historic and beyond-beautiful Mousehole this year, it was no mere coincidence that only two miles east, I had direct access to not only the finest seafood that Cornwall offers up, but also the most diverse and eclectic fleet of fishing boats that exists in the country. Beamers, netters, liners, potters, seiners, jiggers, twin-riggers, trammellers and scallopers, all are berthed there in a multitude of colours, sizes and forms, that constitute the mainstay the this most Westerly fleet. Home too to the Penlee lifeboat and her gallant, distinguished, but also tragic, accompanying history.
So on arrival from Suffolk last week and with an eagerness that can only really described as verging on obsessive, I found myself at the harbour again, one year ago to the very week, since my last excursion into Mounts Bay with Dreckly Fish
Alan Dwan, the charismatic and larger than life skipper of the hake netter Ajax (PZ36) was keen that we should meet prior to him sailing on another scheduled trip to target this now increasingly popular species that affords such a flavoursome alternative amongst the regular white fish staples.
We greet each other on the fish market quay and straight away, I’m ushered aboard Ajax on a technical tour of the vessel. I’m always intrigued to learn more and understand exactly what processes make a trip, aboard any vessel. I’m shown the layout, the gear and the routines involved in the preservation of the catch to ensure its enduring quality when it hits the auctions, all of which remain unknown to the average consumer.
Alan informs me that instead of heading out west of the Scillies to the traditional hake grounds this trip, a seasonal dearth of fish have prompted him to take the decision to steam north into the Irish Sea and head ultimately for Manx waters to try their luck. The vessel’s co-owner Andrew Pascoe appears with the requisite DEFRA missive that details the entitlement to days at sea in those waters, which Alan studies with an experienced eye. Originally from Co Waterford, he’s been fishing out of Newlyn for 20 years, but I’m sensing from him a palpable excitement that he’ll shortly be returning to his home seas.
A quick turn round the harbour ensues and whilst some of the other netters are being pointed out to me, we bump into Gareth Stanley, crewman on the Govenek of Ladram (PZ51) and coiner of the phrase “All hail the hake ” Several vessels are now taking on ice, fuel and provisions. Net bins line the quayside, forklifts dart hither and thither, some with men astride the tines hanging onto to various bits of kit with scant regard to health and safety.
Thanking Alan enormously for his time, I bid him farewell and minutes later watch as Ajax revs her diesels and glides methodically out from the harbour and “through the gaps” bound for hopefully another bumper haul of hake.
Another morning, another tour. Two days later I find myself in the esteemed company of fisherman, lecturer, blogger and all round fount of Newlyn knowledge, Laurence (Larry) Hartwell, whose depth of experience and profound understanding of the port and its foibles will give me an insight into the life and characters here like no other.
We meet at the Monday morning market and although landings aren’t huge, there’s a fantastic array of species lying resplendently iced and arranged on the market floor. The auction is in full swing and as we discuss everything from Brexit to brill, merchants and porters move boxes from place to place with purpose and alacrity.
Laurence is keen for me to build up an accurate picture of the goings on here and over the course of my stay, introduces me to many of the characters that colour the scene. I slowly build a picture of a fishing port striving for success, hungry for the economies and efficiencies that other harbours enjoy, but sadly hampered by tradition, dogma and underinvestment. The Stevenson family have shaped the landscape in Newlyn for many years now and still run the fish auction and its facilities, landing their own fish too, from their, now ageing, fleet of beamers. The new Harbourmaster working with the Harbour Commissioners seeks to balance the politics with representation from skippers, owners and merchants, but I sense that progress is not fast enough and any innovation and advancement made difficult by conflicting opinions.
Notwithstanding the local differences, there is the undoubtedly the quality of fish to focus on. We gaze upon boxes of stunningly bright red gurnard, the ubiquitous cod, prime plaice witch and megrim from the beamers, netted hake and many boxes of haddock a species that worries many here in terms of the Landing Obligation, there being such abundant stocks both off and inshore and with little quota, that undoubtedly they will be cast as a choke species once phased in and obliged to be landed.
From the day boats, the mackerel haven’t yet put in their inshore appearance, with only the odd box evident. Soon though, the hand liners will put to sea in fleets, as will the ring-netters of the pilchard (sardine) harvest, with shoals already showing up on sounders in Mounts Bay.
From the bustle of the market floor we repair to the harbour, where it’s obvious that Laurence knows the story behind every vessel. Eager to relate the minutiae of each skipper crew and fishery, we amble past netters, potters, scallopers and trawlers stopping now and then to exchange pleasantries with fishermen hard at work, mending nets, provisioning vessels and repairing gear, the hiss and crackle of arc welders and the metallic wail of angle grinders punctuating our conversation.
At the end of the Mary Williams pier, I spy a very different type of vessel and one I’m more used to seeing tied up in the Buchan ports of the NE Scottish coast. This twin-rigger belonging to the Stevens family, has only graced the port relatively recently, having been transformed at the renowned Macduff shipyards from the Scots vessel “Rebecca” to the new “Crystal Sea” (SS118) and steamed south to her new home in Newlyn, to fish the SW approaches for a premium mix of white fish, including, Lemon sole, John Dory, brill and haddock.
David Stevens (one of the skipper brothers) is aboard managing the turnaround prior to another trip and I clamber on deck, making my way to the wheelhouse for a fascinating and enlightening conversation with him and his father, David Snr, which instantly centres on Brexit and its implications for the fishing industry. We move on to discuss current fish stocks in the ICES Area VIIe (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), where Crystal Sea carries out most of her fishing.
The Davids are clearly frustrated men. Driven by a desire to improve their industry, see fair play for fishermen and achieve scientific and consumer recognition of current fish stocks, I ask them to elaborate on what the predominant issue is with regards to their catch. Having spoken with David Jnr in the past, it comes as no surprise when I’m told that lack of scientific appreciation of real-time fish stocks, is the underlying concern and especiallywhen coupled with the constraints of the hastily conceived Landing Obligation (LO).
As I listen to David recount in detail, the by now familiar tale of the vast numbers of haddock they encounter and the lack of quota to be able to land them, its depressingly clear that the the scientific advice is well out of step with real-time findings.
“About two years,” he announces, “is the lag we have between the science applied to quota management and the true reflection of fish stocks on the ground. For the past two years we have been involved in the Catch Quota Trials used electronic data monitoring, on board CCTV and real-time reporting to ensure an accurate picture of stock biomass is built up. We’re seeing more haddock on these grounds than ever before and its not just offshore either. They’re right here in Mounts Bay and other inshore waters too.” A fact that wasn’t lost on me in my article on St Mawes fisherman Peter Green earlier this year- Backs to the Wall
What this means of course for fishermen operating a mixed fishery, is that under the rules of the LO, the haddock potentially become “choke species ” effectively preventing the fishing of other species though lack of quota to sustain the haddock volume, where they swim alongside the plethora of other commercial target fish. With our evidence though, we are now able to reverse the burden of proof and help to create a more reactive fishery.”
“We’re still catching more haddock than we have quota for and that’s after having reduced our selectivity for juveniles down to 2%. Policy is the inhibitor here and until thats fully recognised, we will continue to experience these issues.”
An all too-common theme amongst many fishermen I’ve encountered over the last couple of years and undoubtedly the driver behind their well-supported supported “Fishing for Leave” Brexit campaign.
Having spent several hours now at Newlyn Harbour becoming more familiar with the faces and characters that colour the scene here and whilst downloading as much information on its fisheries and history as my brain would absorb, it would have been hugely remiss of me not to go afloat and experience once again, the daily inshore quest aboard one of the numerous and supremely colourful Under 10m vessels that equally share the harbour and characterise the day boat side of the industry. Early the following morning, as I readied myself to go to sea, I watched the Crystal Sea as she departed Newlyn and made her way past St Clements Isle, off Mousehole, under majestic skies.
My mates at Dreckly Fish, had seen to it that I didn’t miss out and once again I soon found myself on the pontoon and boarding one of their vessels, this time at the invitation of their newest member, veteran Cadgwith beach fisherman Louis Mitchell, one of the stars of Monty Hall’s 2012 documentary “The Fisherman’s Apprentice” who having had many years of often challenging conditions launching and retrieving from the cove, now operates with comparative ease from the harbour.
As we steam through the gaps aboard Louis’s boat “Victoria Anne” FH706 I find myself bound on another lobstering trip (my most familiar form of fishing). On a heading across Mounts Bay towards Portleven, we pick up the first of the orange marker buffs and finding a decent specimen in the first pot we embark on a morning dedicated to discussing a very different form of fishing, whilst accumulating a worthwhile catch of Cornish beauties.
A former 2nd Coxswain of the Lizard lifeboat, Louis has probably forgotten more about fishing and seamanship than most will be able to recall. A mine of knowledge and experience he exudes an air of quiet authority on every aspect of his trade.
I ask what probably seem to be the most inane of questions as we motor eastwards towards Poldhu cove and Mullion Island, but Louis keenly answers and whilst hauling rebating and shooting his single parlour pots, also points out to me aspects of the coast’s geography and history as we fish right under the cliffs within hailing distance of tin mines and the elusive haunts of fishermen, smugglers and wreckers in Cornish yesteryear.
The fishing is not bountiful but by the end of the morning we have a worthwhile haul and have returned many more, undersized fish, that Louis assures me will make the grade in twelve months time, have moulted or “shed” and accrued up to a further 40% bodyweight.
As back at home in Suffolk, salted herring are the preferred bait and although lobsters destined for the fishmongers and restaurants countrywide are the main target, crabs (Brown & Spider) from the pots coupled with prime hand-lined pollack, cod, mackerel and bass assure the gold-plated Dreckly quality standard that sees their produce sold before the boats have even entered the harbour.
At Mullion, just below its landmark clifftop hotel, we haul the last pot. Louis’s skilful handling of the extremely seaworthy Buccaneer, ensures that an untimely clash with the weed fronded granite is not an option. As the creel leaves the seabed, he goes astern and then manoeuvres Victoria Anne in to a position where he can rebait and reshoot the gear out of danger. A deft demonstration of his craft using local knowledge and experience to place the gear in specific areas and onto the right ground.
With a freshening breeze we commence the two hour steam back to Newlyn. Autopilot engaged, Louis bands the claws of the rest of the catch and as we continue our conversation, the boat is washed down and prepared for the next outing. Back on the pontoon the morning’s catch are duly decanted into the keep pot with two fine fish being presented to me, along with a couple of cock Spider crabs, for our delectation. Another exciting and satisfying morning, emphatically rounding off my time, at this diverse and industrious port, the very symbol of the Cornish fishing industry.
Three important days then, spent once more in the company of experts, who have enlightened me further, as to the intricacies of this unique and very often misunderstood industry. Also for me more colour on the portrait of this vibrant part of the Cornish coast that has lured me for so long.
And how was the seafood……?
Well, apart from my own grilled Newlyn lobster with garlic butter, courtesy of Louis, three simply stunning meals at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, The Shore in Penzance with Bruce Rennie and at 2 Fore Street, Mousehole, saw us dine on the most exemplary mix of locally landed fish and shellfish, served with imagination and passion, although elaborating on that, will undoubtedly demand a separate post!
“Proper job” as they say down here….