A way of life on the Welsh seas

Vicky Moller reports on the marine creatures who run Wales’ fishing industry

Welsh fisheries are now primarily shellfish. This is due to the depletion of fin fish coupled with the high market price for what is left living in the sea. As shellfish don’t move fast you can impose area management regimes. In the last year the Welsh Government’s Minister for Rural Affairs Elin Jones, has gained new powers to enforce regulations and has not been slow to put them into effect.

The oceans are being drained of life. This is one of the greatest depletions we face, yet it only flickers in and out of public awareness. The EU quota system simply restricts the size of fish that can be sold. This means undersized fish are thrown back into the sea dead. I have spoken with fishermen so disgusted with the waste they defend the black market. Fishing docks often have gates for the legal catch and equally busy gates for the ‘black’ fish.

Modern fishing uses technology developed by the military to comb the deepest recesses of the oceans – sonar technology, satellite navigation, depth sensors, even helicopter trackers. This gargantuan effort catches 14 – 18 times less than at the peak of production, according to new research from York university. Even the sailing ships of 1889 brought home four times as much fish as today, stark proof of the emptiness of our oceans. In areas where cod fishing stopped 18 years ago cod has not come back. This is because shoal fish need numbers to avoid species collapse.

Encouragingly, however, there has been a major change in fishermen’s awareness. I phoned around and found dissonant voices. Some were furious at the recent closure of seas to cockle trawling in Cardigan Bay, while others welcomed the insistence on sustainable sourcing by supermarkets like Waitrose and M & S. A sea fisheries inspector said, “Wherever you have two fishermen you will have three points of view.” But I found a widesp[read recognition of the need to stop over-fishing. When I first wrote about this ten years ago I found blanket denial.

Sean Ryan, the only Milford Haven skipper with a ‘Responsible Fishing’ accreditation says, “There’s very few trawlers left in Wales, it’s a pocket industry”. Cliff Benson of the South West Wales Sea Trust agreed, “Potting is what is left for Welsh fishermen, it has hardly any environmental impact.” Yet 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 said I would find it hard to get fishermen to talk. “They mistrust conservationists, Getting them to act together is like herding cats, he warned.” But 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.” I was told.  “You’ll catch him down the dock from 5am.” Or, “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. Family members answer the phone while serving customers, processing crab, and 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 France and Belgium . We are regulated, they are not,” said one. “What we do land is loaded straight onto ships for Europe. I can’t get local sea food for my restaurant on the Docks. It’s madness,” said another.

There are a bewildering range of views. “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.” Comnpare this with, “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, I heard, “Fishing is no longer a right, it is now a privilege.”

The sector is full of cross currents. There are 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 in Neyland 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 five pots each with no licence so they get them in the name of their families down to second cousins.”

Last year UK seas experienced a small seismic shift. The old Fisheries committees were dissolved and England took over its seas, passing them to the conservation organisations to manage while Welsh seas were taken over by the the Welsh Government’s Minister for Rural Affairs, Elin Jones. This meant action.

In March a flotilla of scallop dredgers descended on Cardigan Bay, 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 Cardigan Bay was closed to dredging until new measures were passed to control the size and range of ships in this protected area.

Skipper Sean Ryan supplies lots of local restaurants including the fish and chip shop in Letterston, Somethings Cooking which is pushing the boat out to the green horizon. It is replacing plastic packaging, buying Pembrokeshire potatoes and line caught fish from more sustainable seas. Hopwever, Instead of supplying local food outlets Sean Ryan could sell everything to supermarkets, which are hassling him to. “I told Morrisons and Tesco to go away,” he said. “They would drive the fish 700 miles for processing in Cornwall, and what’s sustainable about that?”

But there are deep rifts between the articulate conservation organisations, and the fishermen. The Inspector of Welsh fisheries says, “After getting up at 4.30 am 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 Welsg Government grants to buy processing equipment so fish landed can be sold locally, 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 Government 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.

There are other glimmers of light in the gloom. Wales’ Department of Rural Affairs has invested generously in sustainable fishing, in localising the market and getting fishermen to work together. It funded Fishermans Associations such as Cardigan Bay’s which fishermen in west Wales praised – most in its catchment area are members. It seeks to reduce trawling with its wasteful by-catch and churning, and supplies ropes tied between anchors and buoys for the discerning rope-grown mussel market. It organises bulk buys of large mesh prawn nets to replace the smaller gauges, so that more juveniles can escape to grow and breed.

Meanwhile, down at the docks in Milford 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,” I was told. “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.” 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 once worked in Milford’s fishing industry.

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 the 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 British Isles 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”.

Following the 2009 Marine Access Bill, England, Wales and Scotland took control of their coastal seas in April 2010. While England delegated the task to their conservation organisations, the Welsh Government is now directly regulating Welsh sea fishing up to the mid point with Ireland and the Isle of Man, a much larger area than before. Some argue that only international agreements can ensure fish survival, but we had them and they didn’t. With national control we could follow in the wake of nations like Iceland and Norway which have kept their marine fisheries healthy. How?

Iceland, a land of drama has major lessons for the world on sea fishery management. The cod wars – skirmishes spread over nearly 100 years crescendoed to saboteur skiffs cutting nets, rammed by EU fishing juggernauts and the deployment of the British navy. The upshot of the ensuing military geopolitics was a win for Iceland of 200 miles of sea to ensure a future for its fish and its economy. Then the hard work started. Fishermen had to learn to work together, and with their government to enable fish stocks to recover. A mix of measures work, they found, but central to them all is the lubrication of communication.

Unlike EU regulations which allow you to ‘keep what you catch’ stricter controls areenforced. Line catching replaces some nets. And as soon as the average fish size drops grounds are closed to allow juveniles to grow and breed. There are no-take zones for breeding with rich fishing around their perimeter. It works and just as well. After their bank bubble burst, income from fishing resumed its past importance. Some sustainability was sacrificed to aid this recovery, yet Iceland fisheries retain Marine Stewardship accreditation.

Welsh Government investment has had an effect throughout Wales. In Milford Docks I visited the shiny new fish processing centre opened in June by Elin Jones. It processes for over 30 fishing businesses, helping value stay local. I asked at the counter for the most sustainable fish and was persuaded to buy ray wings cut from the bone with a special processor. They explained this was a sustainable choice because it reduces waste and saves rarer fish. I was impressed by the deft argument. Awareness of issues at the customer interface end is a good sign that it will stretch up the supply line.

But the hunger for fish, and the earnings that can be made is not the only threat to healthy seas. In north Wales a planning battle rumbled for ten years between the Beaumaris Marina developers and Bangor Mussel Producers Association. It cost £500,000 and went to the House of Lords to be won by the mussel men. The strength of their conviction and case did not come from selfish need but from their collaboration that had produced a sustainable fishery. They collect seed mussels from the deep mud, and transfer them to a fast flowing part of the Menai straits where they are ‘planted’ to grow before harvesting.

This conservation fishing is winning them the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation, due for completion this year. It is the first certificate for an ‘enhanced fishery’. Spokesperson James Wilson is a third generation fisherman seeking a future for his descendants. “I am optimistic, but we have to reach co-management,”, he says. “Fishermen and sea fishery managers sitting round a table with an equal voice”. I asked if the Welsh fishermen were ready for this. “Fishermen can be their own worst enemies” he admitted. “People with no security, no tenure are forced to act short-term. We are lucky here to have sole tenure for our licensed businesses.” This influenced the high court to rule in favour of a business that brings 7 – 10,000 tons of sea-food to shore annually rather than for the well-touted tourism advantages of another marina.

In the Burry inlet next to the Gower and Llanelli the story is more troubled. The cockle fishery there was the first to achieve shell-fish MSC accreditation when there were only four MSC businesses in the world. For 20 years around 40 cocklers had hand picked the shell-fish supporting their families in a time-honoured manner. The 2-3 thousand tons a year was a popular high-protein sea-side food. But disaster struck – there were five years of mysterious mass die-offs.

The cause of deaths is unproven but excess nutrient richness is indicated by the location of the deaths. The combined sewer overflows are implicated (diluted raw sewage is discharged at times of heavy rain). The local fishermen are confident this is the cause, but as Dwr Cymru states, “the cause is not proven.” Nonetheless, Dwr Cymru are investing heavily in cleaning up and have reduced the amount of ground-water entering sewers in the area by 30 litres a second, a small percentage of the whole according to their spokesman. The Environment Agency has taken over management of the beds to encourage recovery, and are allowing an early harvest of juveniles in densely packed areas to prevent later deaths from overcrowding.

Meanwhile in the Dee cockle fishery the story is a happier one. Cleanup in 2000 of industry and sewers saw the cockle numbers grow rapidly. This led to over-fishing as fishermen tend to act like a shoal chasing the food. The Environment Agency completed an agreement with fishermen to ensure restraint and sustainable practices. Cockle numbers responded well so that this year the cockle harvesting season has been extended to avoid over population.

There is a strong market for sustainable fish and the Welsh Government has some powers to save our seas. With more powers, like those enjoyed by Iceland,  they could do a lot more. As things are, one Minister and a few inspectors can’t do it alone. Ahead lie the vicious winds of political opposition, the cross currents of the wild fishing sector, the reefs of conservationists protecting the rights of marine predators, and dwarfing all of these the tidal wave of economic demand as food depletion hits.

Vicky Moller is a writer for Green Pages and an editor with Pembrokeshire Life magazine. Access her website at www.pembrokeshire.econews.org.uk

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