Dave Cuthbert, who has been a gill-net fisherman for over 30 years, is currently the owner and skipper of the Darter, a 10 metre (32 foot) fibreglass boat that he operates out of Plymouth Harbour in south-west England. He is one of the founders, and the Chairman, of NUTFA: the New Under Ten[s] Fishermens Association, an organisation formed in 2006 to ensure that small inshore boats were better represented in London and Brussels. He might begrudge the increasing amount of time he is spending in meetings, but it is also abundantly clear from our conversations that he is someone who is prepared to take on any adversaries to secure the future of small-boat fishermen (traditionally known as ‘under 10’s’). As he says, ‘If there is injustice, you need to stand up and fight it in order to be true to your values’.
His story is one of survival, both in the sense of staying alive, and also in earning a living as a fisherman:
“It is tough making a living as a fisherman. You have to be simultaneously a skipper, mechanic, electrician, salesman and most of all know how and where to catch fish. For the first 10 years as a fisherman, I was the only breadwinner in the family and there has always been a real pressure to keep working and keep thinking about how to be more effective and efficient. I am either out at sea, mending nets, fixing the engine or something else on the boat – there is always something that needs doing.
I was one of the first people to use monofilament gill nets in the South West. It is a technique that means I can target bigger fish and have a minimal impact on the surrounding marine environment. Each ‘fleet’ of nets is made up of five sections about 100 metres long and between 4 and 5 metres high. The holes in the mesh are big – big enough to fit your hand through. Each morning I will haul and then set 4 or 5 fleets a day. From long experience I’ve learnt that it is better to keep the number manageable than to have to rush around as daylight is failing, or even worse to leave a net out for another night with the fish hanging dead in the net.
Fishermen who use pots tend to work in fairly well defined territories, but gill netters move depending on the season, the weather and the whim of the skipper. In the autumn, I head out to the Western Ruts, about 8 miles offshore. January and February are good months for cod, so I keep close inshore to catch them. Getting my fish to market without a scratch on them is something that I take great pride in. They are inevitably in much better condition than those that will have been crushed in the cod end of a trawl net. Mind you, I have to accept that there are no territorial rights to any fishing ground; I could never tell anyone to fuck off my patch, life just isn’t that simple.
I first went to sea in a rowing boat to catch cod with my granddad. We would row out for a mile or so from the beach at Eastbourne. It was a good feeling to come back home and drop some fish on the kitchen table. I have never understood people who sit on the river bank, catch some fish and then throw them back; for me there always has to be an end-product. For someone who was no good at school and just liked to spend their time swimming and fishing, joining the Navy seemed like just the right thing to do. So at age 15 I travelled up to HMS Ganges in Suffolk where I endured a couple of years of naval character building. It was tough training, but I would say it has prepared me well for any adversity that I have faced ever since.
After a year on a frigate, I became the youngest person since the war to go into submarines, where I spent the rest of my naval career. It’s a surreal existence really. You are in a steel tube submerged in the sea. Submarines in the 1960s were an alien way of life, they were hot and stank of diesel fumes and old sweat. There were only three sinks between the 70 crew, so unsurprisingly most of the crew didn’t bother washing for the entire voyage. We slept in our clothes, listening to the creaks and groans and watching the condensation pouring off the bulkheads around us, so we never really slept soundly.
As a sonar officer, I would spend hours in a cramped little room under the control deck listening for the sounds of Russian submarines. There were a couple of times when I thought we weren’t going to make it. We were on patrol in an ‘Amphion’ class submarine, HMS Alliance. We were in the Mediterranean, in about 500 feet (150 metres) of water. The Officer of the Watch said that we were going to stay deep for a couple of hours and then come up for a snort. When you are using sensitive sonar equipment you can obviously hear everything that is going on in your own sub as well as in the water around you. A few moments later I picked up this huge WHOOSH in my ears, followed by a pressure shock as the whole boat shook. I was thinking ‘fucking hell, it’s two miles to the bottom; if something serious has happened we’ve got no chance at all’. The outlook wasn’t helped by one of the crewmen shouting down to us ‘If you ever stopped praying, start now, the motor room has just erupted in a ball of flames!’ I heard the thumps of compressed air as each of the four bottle groups was opened into the ballast tanks to do an emergency surface and then I sat in the sonar room and watched the depth gauge, waiting for it to start ascending. It didn’t move. And that’s when I thought we had really had it. Then I felt the submarine lurch and rock as we hit the surface and remembered with huge relief that I had disconnected the depth gauge earlier. It turned out that an oil pipe had burst in the motor room, causing the switchboard to catch fire – there were no fatalities that time, but there were a couple more serious incidences on board that sub before she became a memorial and museum in Portsmouth.
As head of sonar operations on board the sub, I found that I was spending more and more time at sea, and it was getting hard on the family. I decided to come out voluntarily after 14 years, and partnered up on a fishing boat with a friend from the Navy. I had continued to fish while on shore leave from the Navy, so it didn’t feel like a huge change at the time. We bought a boat called the Worhinnie; but the partnership didn’t last, as my mate’s wife resented the amount of time her husband spent fishing. I had no other options – I had to make the work pay, so I bought him out and carried on fishing. Those first few years were the toughest of my life. I was working 363 days a year and had taken out loans of £16,000 to pay for the boat and gear.
After a few years I bought a different boat and renamed it Kehaar after the seagull in Watership Down. The problem at this time was not a lack of fish, but the poor prices at the market. We were only getting around £90 for over 600kg (20 boxes) of fish. It was a precarious existence. The lowest point in my fishing career was when [his whose?] gearbox went. I needed another £500 to get a replacement. The bank manager refused, and suggested it was time for me to give up fishing. I told him that if the boat didn’t have a working engine then I wouldn’t be able to sell it anyway. He reluctantly agreed to lend me the money. I drove up to Norfolk through the snow with a friend to get a replacement. We had the gearbox fitted the same night, and I was out fishing in the morning. Three days later I had paid off the gearbox loan, and over the next few months I gradually began to climb out of debt. I remained bitter about the lack of support I got from my bank when I really needed it, but the manager moved on just before I was going to tell him to stuff it.
Equally, there have been periods when the fishing has been great. I still remember my best ever week’s fishing. We were up near Bigbury Bay, I had seen a few fish marks on the echo-sounder, but it was featureless ground so I was a bit sceptical. My crewman, Adrian, was even more cynical and said that it was going to be a fucking waste of time. We shot the nets anyway and Adrian came out the next day, reluctant and hung-over from the night before. Within the first few pulls of the net we had caught five big bass and it was already looking good. In the first six nets we had taken over 225 kg of fish, and then we doubled the catch on the last haul. We went back for the next couple of days catching turbot, cod and more bass. It was a phenomenal few days’ fishing that earned £5,000 at the time, probably around £25,000 in today’s prices! I could never make money like that today with quotas, I would have to throw most of the catch back.
Fishing is well known as one of the most dangerous occupations in the UK today. Rough weather, heavy gear, lines and nets create a dangerous combination of conditions that kill fishermen every year. Too often there are sobering and tragic reminders of how quickly things can go wrong at sea. For many people who start fishing and sailing, a bad experience in the first year can often put them off for life.
My bad experience was probably the day that my fishing boat was cut in half by a trawler. I was fishing part time on a boat called the Venture. We were one of a group of three small boats fishing on whiting grounds on a clear day about 5 miles offshore. For a while I had been watching a trawler out of Plymouth that seemed to be heading straight for us. I relaxed when she went off in a different direction, but then, at the last minute, she veered directly towards us. There was no time to pull up the anchor or even start the engine. We just jumped overboard, my crewman kicking against the side of the trawler as he dived for safety. I assume you have never heard the sound of two boats colliding, but it is a horrendous noise that I will never forget. I went for the life raft, but we were picked up straight away by the same trawler that had run us down. The skipper had locked himself in the wheelhouse, which in retrospect was probably a wise thing to do. I was absolutely furious, hammering on the door shouting ‘I’m going to fucking kill him’. Ultimately the skipper was prosecuted for failing to keep a proper watch. I bore absolutely no malice towards him, I was just interested in getting the money back for my boat. A couple of years later the same skipper was cut down in the Channel by an unknown ship. The sea can be strange in that way, I sometimes wonder what he thought when he was hit.
Fishing alone is something that many fishermen are forced to do because there is not enough quota available to allow for a decent living to be made from one boat. I have always had a crewman on board. It only takes a small thing to go wrong for an accident to happen, so having another pair of hands is primarily a safety issue for me. A good crewman is someone who is reliable, disciplined and knows what they are doing. It is more than just someone to help pick out the fish and gut them; I need someone who can help me with the mechanics, mend the nets and make sure that everything is well looked after. I have had a number of crewmen come and go over the years – unfortunately the good ones tend to go on to skipper their own boats.
I have never been afraid of the sea. Once I make a decision to go to sea, that’s it. I think I am well known on the quayside for never turning back. There is obviously a certain pride and satisfaction in getting through a day in rough weather when no one else has gone out. I know my limits and I know my boat. She is well built with a lot of weight below the waterline, so she is very stable in rough weather. Her previous skipper was the coxswain of the lifeboat in Exmouth. When I went to pick her up it was a foul day, blowing a strong north easterly wind with the tide on the ebb which created one of those classic wind against tide situations. The skipper suggested I wait for a couple of hours, but I was anxious not to get stuck around Start Point when the tide turned. He offered to lead me out of the Exmouth channel in the lifeboat, but warned me ‘Whatever you do, whatever you see, don’t try and turn around or you’ll find yourself in serious trouble’. We started heading out into the channel, and then the lifeboat just disappeared down a huge steep wave in front of me! We followed, and the boat was pitched at a near vertical axis as she shuddered over the top of the wave and down again; we had a couple more like that and then we were through. I looked over at my crewman who had been unusually silent. He was as white as a sheet. I commented ‘That was a bit hairy, wasn’t it!’ and nothing more was said. Those first few minutes at the helm of my new boat were the worst I have ever experienced, but it was useful as I have always known what she is capable of.
There is inevitably some disagreement and tension between fishermen who are using different gears. They are often in competition for the same fish or the same patch of ground. Line fishermen sometimes criticise the net fishermen for catching fish in the winter months, before they have had a chance to spawn. My response is that with gill nets we are targeting bigger fish that will have already had a chance to spawn several times. I look at myself as a level-headed conservationist. You need to earn a living, but you also need to appreciate where the fish come from. I want to maximise the profit from what I kill.
Equally, there are some conservationists whose opinions are way off the scale in terms of what they expect the fishermen to do. We have to make a living from catching fish, and banning boats that are using static gear from nets and pots is not something that I agree with. You need to recognise that fishermen are at sea every day, witnessing the environment at first hand. In my experience, most of them have an affinity with nature. I have had crewmen who will jump up with a camera if we spot dolphins while we are out fishing. I have also had others who just don’t care. Like most things, it comes down to education. Those that have an irresponsible attitude tend to have learnt their trade from fishermen who don’t care. Some fishermen will just chuck their coffee cup or wrappers over the side of the boat. I have always kept a bucket on deck for rubbish that gets caught in the net, partly because I don’t want to catch it again, but also because it keeps the ground clean where I work.
Scalloping is not something I would ever want to do. It is lucrative, one of the most profitable arms of the fishing industry in fact, but it causes huge damage to the seabed. In my opinion, forms of fishing like scalloping and (to a lesser degree) beam trawling should be treated more like aggregate dredging [and with them] only working within specifically licensed areas.
I think that small-scale fishing is the key to a productive, profitable and sustainable fishery. When I look around at the way some big fishing businesses are run I am horrified. There are very few family- run boats nowadays; the industry is dominated by big companies with fleets of boats and millions of pounds’ worth of quota that they own. Some are even using Filipino and Eastern European crew, which is doing very little for local jobs. If you think about how the profit from a fishing trip is divided up, you quickly realise how absurd the situation is. A big beam trawler might be earning £35,000 from a week-long trip. £25,000 of that would pay for the fuel. From the remaining £10,000, 40% would go to the owner, 25% to the skipper and the remaining £3,500 is divided among the crew. That doesn’t seem to me to be a sustainable and efficient way to run an industry.
The allocation of fish through quota is something that we are going to have to continue to live with, but it needs to be shared equitably throughout the fleet and not be something that is just the preserve of big vessels and big business. I think it is wrong that quota has become a market commodity that is freely traded and rented. It is a national asset that should be shared between all fishermen. When I retire I should have a boat to sell and that is it – I don’t think anyone should see owning quota as some kind of lifetime money-making machine [opportunity].
Originally, the small fishing boats didn’t need a licence or quotas at all. When the Common Fisheries Policy and quotas were introduced in the early 1980s we used to be gifted quota that was left over from the big companies. Then, a few years ago, Europe wanted to make sure that small fishing boats were being properly accounted for. Defra introduced the Registered Buyers and Sellers Scheme in April 2006 and started leasing quota to small boats. But the quantity was simply not enough to be viable. By the end of May I had run out of quota, and many other small-boat fishermen were having the same problem. Within a month our livelihoods ceased to be viable. It was off the back of this situation that the New Under Ten[s] Fishermens Association (NUTFA) was formed. I am someone who believes that you can’t just moan about your lot, you’ve got to get out there and fight for a fair deal. I often need to remind people that fishermen are real people with real issues, mortgages and bills to pay. I am coming to the end of my career as a fishermen and none of the things that I am working for are going to help me, but I ask myself how a young man can make a living as a fisherman as I did.
Discarding happens for two main reasons. Either you can’t sell the fish and other marine life in the catch at the market or your personal limit or ‘quota’ has been reached. For example, you might reach your limit for cod very quickly, but you could still have plenty available for plaice and sole. This means that in order to keep your business going, you need to keep fishing for the plaice and sole, but you have to throw back the cod or risk prosecution and big fines.
Sometimes I get huge amounts of spurdog caught in my nets and they all have to go dead back into the sea because there is no quota for them at all. It is heartbreaking. A fixed monthly allowance is useless because of the huge variation through the season. I catch virtually all of my cod in the winter months. We need a system that is flexible for different regions through different seasons. If you ban discards, nothing will change apart from the fact that fishermen would bring everything ashore and would not be paid for those fish with no market value. Besides, there is no efficient means of ensuring that a fisherman actually does land everything caught. So the amount of fish removed from the sea would remain the same. However, if local organisations had the flexibility to manage quota for the small boats then I think this system would be able to incorporate seasonal fluctuations and enable quota to be exchanged between the different members. In this system there would be much less waste and more chance of small boats being viable.
I think it is the best way to get the inshore sector back on its feet and earning money again. The public are becoming increasingly aware of where their fish comes from, and some supermarkets are leading the way in wanting to source fish that has better standards of sustainability and quality. Fresh, inshore-caught fish is always going to sell, and if we can make sure that these fishermen have access to quota then we are going to see a revitalisation for small-scale fishermen. There is a hell of a lot of work still to do, it probably won’t be perfect, but I think we are on the cusp of something very exciting.
There are days when the engine is playing up, I am not catching any fish, the weather is rotten, and I wonder why the hell I am still doing this; but equally there are days when the weather is good and the fish are coming shivering out of the net. There is still a real satisfaction in that, and I suppose it’s what keeps me going.”