Cornwall Fishermen

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Rodney told me he has lived in Mevagissey all his life, and that a few years ago he “swallowed the anchor” and retired, now fishing only for pleasure. He was six years old when he first went out on a boat. When he was 11, during the school holidays, he and all the boys used to go out, and have a trip out all night on the boat, helping catch sardines, or pilchards. While the fishermen were pulling the nets in, he and his friends would steer the boat.

Rodney did that the following summer and the next and then when he was 13, one of the crew fell off a wall, and hurt himself. The boat took him on, on a half-share. Rodney explained that meant there was a share for the boat, a share for the nets, and a share for each of the four crew members, and they gave him a half share. The first week he went home, he had made more money than his dad, who was a senior draftsman in the drawing office for the Cornwall Council.

Rodney continued to fish during the summer holidays while he was at college. He then became an officer in the Merchant Navy, and did ten years on cargo ships. When he’d saved up enough, he had a boat built, and came back, and went fishing.

His routine was to leave about two hours before sunset, and go looking for shoals of fish. Just before sunset, they would start putting the drift nets out, a mile of nets that had floats on them. Then an hour after dark, they would start pulling them in. Rodney said they could get two or three tons of sardines a night (A pilchard is two years old, and a sardine is less than two years old). He explained there was a cannery in the village then, and when the fish were landed, they went straight into the cannery and ended up in tins.

Rodney said at the time there were probably 25 – 20 to 25 boats that used to fish for pilchard in the summer, and slightly less in the winter, because the smaller boats didn’t do it. wintertime, although there used to be boats that came from St. Ives, and Newlyn, and other places for the winter pilchard season. They used to run less nets in the winter, because the fish used to swim in very dense shoals, and if you had too many nets in the water, you could lose the nets.

During the winter, because the nights were longer, Rodney said the fishermen used to go out just after luncheon, and be back in again by eight o’clock with 2 or 3 tons of fish. But he said it’s changed now, and nobody does the drift netting anymore. They have a ring net fishery here with a purse string, and the boats can catch 20 or 30 tons of fish at a time.

Rodney explained that in Mevagissey, there’s no other industry in the village other than tourism. If a young man wants to work locally, basically, the only job is fishing, and the bigger boats employ the youngsters. He said they get the tickets, and then they earn a bit of money, and then they think, “Oh, I’m going to have my own boat,” and that, collectively, as a harbor, they try to encourage.The harbor is very nearly full. We haven’t got much room for any more boats.

Most of the youngsters fishing today come from fishing families, Rodney said. They’ve grown up in the industry. Their dad’s been a fisherman, or an uncle, or a granddad, and they know what it’s like. It is hard work at times, and it’s cold and wet at times. But it does pay quite well, compared to jobs ashore. You can earn a good living. I think that’s why Mevagissey seems to be bucking the trend, as it were, with plenty of youngsters keen on going to sea. And they do well. It pays off.


I talked with fisherman Andrew whiIe he mended his nets alongside his boat the Galatea. He told me that he has been fishing since he can first remember with his father, and his grandfather before that.

He said his first experience was when he was less than five years old, going out in a small boat from a little village 8 miles to the south of Mevagissey called Portloe, where they pull the boats up on the beaches, boats of about 7-8 meters long. He would watch them pulling crab pots in, and on the way home, he was given a handline with a piece of wood on it, ‘to keep the little boy happy.’ Once a fish took the hook, the wood would alter its angle, and flip to the surface of the water, and he could pull the fish in

Andrew said he would go fishing there often with his dad and my grandfather. If it was too rough, they wouldn’t take him out, and he used to have to stay with my grandmother. On those days, he would go down onto the beach, and wait for them to come in, picking up shells, and float them down the stream until they got back, which he eagerly awaited.

“I couldn’t wait to leave school at 16, and get out in the boat,” he said. “All of my classmates without exception went to college and university. I was on their same intellectual plane, but I wasn’t interested. I think I was born in the wrong century, to be honest.”

Photo: Meg Pier

Andrew was matter-of-fact about the life of a fisherman.

He said ‘If you don’t put the work in here, you can’t make any money out there. In the last six days, I’ve been at sea for five days, leaving home at about ten to four in the morning, and on my latest evening this week, I got home nearly ten o’clock at night. Every other evening, I haven’t been at home before seven-thirty for the whole week. This morning I was up at seven o’clock to mend this net. We’ll finish at six or seven o’clock tonight, and I’ll be up at half-past three tomorrow morning to go again.’

“My grandfather didn’t really want my father to go into fishing,” Andrews said. “And my father, he didn’t really want me to go into it. He didn’t dissuade me. He gave me encouragement, but he tried to encourage me to be interested in other things, but I’m afraid I wasn’t. Because fishing is very hard. I enjoy my job, but I didn’t really encourage my own son to go into fishing, but he works with me.”

When I asked Andrew if fishing was part of the Cornish identity, he said “I think fishing is deep-rooted. It is for me, and obviously, for my son. He looked at me, and said, “Well, dad’s made a living all his life.” He’s quite bright, but not interested in the academic life. So, he’s followed in my footsteps.”

‘I’m the last one, though,” he said. “The number of the boats has just gone down. Polperro, a hundred years ago, would have probably had between 80 and 120 boats, each employing four to six men. Now, there’s four boats, employing five people.That’s it.”

Tim cited two reasons for the decline, which were echoed by other fishermen I met: quotas and fishing boundaries.

“The quotas are ridiculously out of touch,” he declared. “Quotas are done on historic catch, and of course, everything changes daily, if not weekly, and monthly. But the fisheries’ quotas are based on data that was gathered in the 1970s. So, we have almost zero allowance on seabass, for example. In my early years of fishing, like 30-odd years ago, I didn’t catch very many bass. Five or six stone, or 30 kilos, was a good day. Now, five or six tons is a common catch. They’ve moved. I think it’s a consequence of global warming. Our cold-water fish–our cod, our haddock–we don’t see very much at all of that now. That’s disappeared, they’re migrating for the cooler water but up in Norway, they’ve got fantastic catches.”

“We have very few brown crab, they’re migrating north,” Tim continued. “But we’ve got probably three or four times as many lobsters as I’ve ever seen before now. We have huge quantities of bass now, increasing quantities of cuttlefish. That’s all the sort of thing that’s coming out of the Mediterranean, and the Bay of Biscay, and coming up into our waters, because our waters are cooler than the Mediterranean. The fish are moving to what they’re happy in, the temperature that they’re happy to live at.”

“It’s a redistribution of the stock, I’m sure it is,” he continued. “But unfortunately, the scientists are so far behind the game that we’ve spent six years dumping haddock, hundred of thousands of tons, literally, have been dumped. And now, we’ve got massive quotas for haddock now, because they’ve suddenly caught up with some data from the last ten years. But there’s no haddock to catch now.”

There’s no good dumping fish. It’s polluting the grounds, as well. When you chuck one fish overboard, a dozen crabs will eat that one fish. Chuck over 10 tons in one pile, and it just rots, and stagnates the ground.

“Anywhere in Cornwall, the wages are very poor, and fishing was a thing that people used to stick around for,” he said. “The money was good. I made very good money when I started fishing, but now we’re forced to dump everything, all the time, there’s no money in it, and not to mention the psychological impact. I know boats that have caught 100,000 pounds worth of seabass in one haul in three hours, and they’ve had to shovel every bit of it over the side.”

I asked Tim about international fishing rights in the waters around Cornwall, which I had heard was an issue.

“The French have the rights to fish up to our six-mile limit,” he said. “We can only fish up to their 12, but the majority of the fish are between six and 12 miles off our shores. That’s a bone of contention, but the other bone of contention is if an English boat has more than 300 horsepower in their engine, they’ve got to fish outside of 12 miles, anyway. They can’t come inside.

“The French boats with 1,000 horsepower can come in here, towing enormous nets right up to our 6-mile limit. And the French have been over here loading up on haddocks all the time. While we had to dump them, they were catching them, and keeping them. They get a vastly bigger quota and also, they’re policing is nonexistent.

Esedhvos Festival of Cornish Culture

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