A future for fish

October 17, 2018 by Rory Moore

Borough Market was shrouded in mist; it was the first cold autumn morning in London and the market’s oyster-sellers were not yet up.  From my taxi I could see the figure of a fishermen standing by a lamp post on the street corner.  I called out of the window and Gavin Ziemann, a fisherman from Lyme Bay, Dorset, came out of the fog and jumped into the car.  We sped off to Gatwick leaving the market to sleep.

I’d first met Gavin a year earlier when I was visiting the marine reserve in Lyme Bay.  Sat on the dock, we talked about small-scale fishing and cuttlefish eggs.  The Lyme Bay reserve is the first and best example of collaboration between local fishermen and conservationists.

Rory (left) and Gavin (right) in Salina

Fishermen have agreed to sustainable fishing “codes of conduct” within the reserve and have in turn received insulated fish boxes, ice-machines and chilled rooms to keep their catch fresh.

Results were astounding: within five years, scallop landings doubled and lobster and flatfish catches saw a four-fold increase.  Within the reserve, scientists recorded an 84 per cent increase in species abundance: four times as many branching sponges and eight times as many vulnerable pink sea fans.  The fishermen were making more money for their sustainable catch and the environment was recovering fast.

Months later, upon returning from a field trip to the Aeolian Islands, in southern Italy, I called Gavin and asked if he would come back with me one day and talk to Sicilian fishermen about his life in Lyme.  He agreed and, leaving his boat in his brother’s capable hands, flew with me over Mt Etna and into Catania.

Sicily is steeped in fishing history.  Communities would lay great coastal traps (mattanzas) during the annual bluefin tuna migrations, herding the great fish into nets and hooking them out with harpoons and fish gaffs.  The Sicilians learnt to keep the fish in olive oil and fishing communities thrived.  The heyday came to an end in the 1990s as tuna stocks collapsed due to commercial overfishing and the mattanzas was over. Life for coastal fishermen became very difficult.

Gavin and I were heading to a volcanic archipelago called the Aeolians, an hour’s ferry ride north of Sicily. We arrived late in Salina harbour, threw our cases into the Jeep and shot off along the coast to meet our dinner guests.

Giulia Bernardi, a local biologist and BLUE’s Project Coordinator, briefed us as we drove around the extinct volcano.  She had arranged for small-scale fishermen from three marine reserves in Italy to travel to the Aeolians to share their experiences.

Gavin (left), Rory (centre) and Giulia (right) at the fishermen’s meeting

Many of these fishermen had never left their home towns, so a trip to the Islands was no small matter.  Some brought their wives and children, some took the journey alone.  This was a first for Gavin and me, and a first for the Italian fishermen.

As local wine was poured and introductions were made, it became clear that these fishermen, no matter how geographically and culturally removed they were from each other, all had plenty in common.

They all fish on small boats, usually alone.  They are all passionate about the sea – phones were passed over the pasta, showing off a variety of huge fish and pots crammed with crab and lobster.  They are all concerned about the damage to the environment and their livelihood caused by illegal and unregulated industrial fishing and they all want a future where their children and grandchildren can fish as they do.

I went to bed on the side of the volcano wondering what that future would actually look like.  Would there be any fish left? Could we reverse overfishing?

The next day saw an unusual crowd of fishermen, journalists, scientists, politicians, coastguards and restaurateurs gather at the municipal hall.

A motley-looking crew of broad-shouldered men with wild white hair had jumped off a fishing boat and were walking up the promenade.  I recognised them immediately – they were the famous fishers of Stromboli who had made the journey from their own volcano to join their Salinan counterparts.  The fishers of Stromboli and Salina were the first in the Aeolians to sign up to their own fishing “codes of conduct” after hearing about the successes in Lyme Bay.

Fishermen at the meeting in Salina

The meeting started and fishermen got up in groups to speak about fishing in marine protected areas.  They spoke about closed areas, seasonal fisheries, rotating fishing gear and the market for traceable, responsibly caught seafood.

Never before have I heard silence in a hall full of fishermen.  I had been imagining monkfish and conger eels hurtling across the stage.  Far from it, everyone was in agreement and fascinated to hear the others’ stories and experiences.

Gavin was eager to present to this crowd.  He took the stage and spoke from the heart about his life, his fishing and his understanding of marine conservation.  The Italian fishermen listened intently as Gavin described the pros and cons of fishing within a marine reserve and working closely with and environmental NGO.

He explained that BLUE had given the fishermen in Lyme Bay a voice, which enabled them to influence management measures and suggest improvements to the scheme.  The result for Gavin was that he can regularly fill his pots with healthy-sized shellfish and is getting a better price for his fish.  No one doubted him.  His last words were to invite the fishermen over to Lyme Bay (story to be continued…).

Gavin (left) and his brother Charlie (right) with their catch

The captain of the coastguard finished off proceedings, giving his blessing to all of the fishermen and promising support.  This was echoed by the regional representative for fisheries who congratulated the audience on their mission to reduce fishing impact and restore healthy fish stocks.

The event was a coup.  Journalists and radio presenters interviewed the guests as they left, gathering stories for the national press.

As the sun set on Salina, fishermen gathered at the local bar to celebrate the day and exchange details.  The message was clear.  The Lyme Bay/Aeolian model hit a note with the visiting fishermen. They wanted collaboration and they wanted to take the model home.  It was exactly what I wanted to hear!

The next day we said our goodbyes and Gavin, Giulia and I visited another local port. Gavin was keen to understand Aeolian fishing methods and was especially interested in the giant “Nassa” pot, used to catch reef fish and eel.  “I think I’ll make one of these at home and see what I catch” he said.  “If it works for them, it can work for me!”

Gavin and Giulia at a local port

We left in high spirits, having proved that the model of sustainable fishing developed in Lyme Bay could work in the Mediterranean.  We showed that fishermen and conservationists could indeed work together effectively.  We showed that small-scale fishermen (over 80% of the Mediterranean fleet) had a voice and could effect change.  The future for the next generation of artisanal fishermen looked brighter, as did the future for fish.

I dropped Gavin off at Waterloo on a rainy October evening last weekend.  I was sad to leave him and I hoped that he felt the same way.  We promised to see each other out in the bay on our boats one day.  I asked the driver to take me home – we talked about tuna all the way.