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Dead Fish Patrol

Aug 03,2000 Chris Pledge

In 1999, BBC 2’s Internal Affairs series broadcast the program Dead Fish Patrol –the third part of four documentaries looking at the work of some of Britain’s various enforcement agencies - this one focused it’s attentions on sea fisheries inspectors based at Brixham, now Britains third largest fishing port.

Any angler worth his salt that watched this program, probably felt sickened by the tactics employed by skippers and tragic waste of natural resources involved in today’s commercial fishing industry. From the footage shown in this 30-minute show, there is no doubt that parts of this industry are rotten to the core.

For those of you who didn’t watch this program, it highlighted a MAFF action to try and catch possible cheats working Brixham. The opening scenes had two fisheries inspectors involved in a late night clandestine undercover operation to check a trawler suspected of illegal landings.

Within minutes of arriving at the port, one of them had to go to his office to collect a net gauge where he was spotted by fishermen’s lookouts – blowing his cover. I’m not sure if this was for the benefit of the cameras to show what goes on, but it contained all the forward thinking of a group of lemmings.

Why wasn’t he carrying a net gauge with him in the first place? After all, it’s not the bulkiest piece of equipment, and he certainly wasn’t at his most unobtrusive being followed around by a camera crew, sound engineer, etc. Needless to say their prospective target declared its catch correctly.

Filmed between September and November 1998, the initial two-week blitz by MAFF failed to catch any cheats, there was however an increase in the amount of fish registered by skippers – cold comfort there then?

Other aspects shown included the work of the Royal Navy’s fisheries protection vessel Alderney, one of ten boats that patrol UK waters. At any one time it is possible that 7000 boats are trawling waters around the UK, and 60% of those boats are foreign.

MAFF’s inspectors gave the impression that they are resigned to not being able to effectively police this situation. Ray Mill’s MAFF’s head of operations stated that when he started in his job he thought that 10% of skippers broke the law – he now say’s it is a "commonly accepted practice."

When posed with the question of quotas not making any sense for conservation he agreed saying that decisions are made by the Council of Ministers in Brussels, and they cannot come up with a better system.

One of the most appalling parts of this program was a registered scallop dredger who was bending the rules to such a degree it was scandalous (a polite way of putting it). MAFF inspectors believed that this boat was carrying more than its 10% allowable by-catch limit. Upon approaching the boat it pulled away from its berth and went back out into the harbour, where crewmembers were seen by other inspectors to dump fish on the blind side of those on the quay.

When it returned and the catch was checked, this boat was carrying 150 boxes of decaying dogfish in order to allow it to retain a greater proportion of more valuable species like sole. Remember, as a scallop boat he can keep 10% of his by-catch – the more dogfish, spurdog, bull huss, etc onboard, the more sole he can retain.

After calculations were made this boat had a 12% by-catch, and the owner and skipper now face charges that carry a maximum fine of £105,000. Had they not had the rotting dogfish onboard – which by the way were not for human consumption – the by-catch would have been 300%.

If my maths is correct, that meant 18 boxes of sole landed worth around £5400 or roughly £300 a box. It’s easy then to see why those extra dogfish become a valuable asset, who knows what might have been landed when including the dumped fish?

During this program one MAFF official was heard too say, " It’s why they’ve all got big houses." Another officer stated he had been in the job for ten years, and that they were fighting fires and missed a great deal of what goes on.

If that wasn’t bad enough, scenes of hundreds of fish being dumped back over the side of a beam trawler were appalling. The owner/skipper, John Hingley, calmly said, " Most of it is dead when we haul it onboard. When we throw it back it just feeds the gulls." Mr Hingley had little consideration for his catch or the irreparable damage beam trawling does to the seabed.

A complete change of attitude is needed as to how we look after a national asset; short-term personal gain will only add too long-term national pain, the sea in not an inexhaustible resource. You only have to look at the history of once prosperous fishing community’s like Newfoundland to see how quickly decline can set in once over fishing becomes a way of life.

If you want to. you can experience this with a rod and line; nip across to Belgium and try your luck on the beaches there. I photographed the world championships on several of their prime areas a couple of years ago - the fishing is diabolical.

I realise that writing this item will be considered nothing short of heresy by some sections of the sea angling community. It appears that criticising the commercial fishing industry just isn’t the done thing.

All I hope is that when the 6-mile and 12-mile limits are removed in 2002, those that are critical have done a little more than start considering the matter in December 2001!

As an important leisure industry, we need more say in what affects us, and to not be ashamed of being sea anglers.

If this article prompts just one person into shaking off the apathy that envelopes our sport and persuades them to complain about what is happening, it will have done more use than all of the good intentions debated at committee meetings throughout the country.


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