Back in September, finding myself out of work, I seriously thought about trying to get a job aboard a fishing boat. I signed up for a course to obtain the necessary Basic Sea Survival certificate and got networking with the local fishermen. It seemed like there might be a possibility of getting a place on a trawler based in Tarragona.
Catalan Mediterranean trawler fishermen work from 0600 to 1800 and get to sleep in their own beds every night if they so chose. The work in itself is not arduous. On the day that I went out the fishermen boarded at 0600 but disappeared to their bunks for an hour’s kip en route to the fishing grounds. They set the net at 0700 and then more or less got on with what ever they wanted. One went back to his bunk another stitched a jacket for the ship’s dog. The cook cleaned fish for breakfast. There was a brief flurry of activity mid-morning as the boat turned for the run back. Then there was lunch, which, on my boat, was truly sumptuous. Afterwards the skipper and cook had a siesta then, at 1530, the main work of the day began, we hauled the net and sorted the fish while steaming home. We tied up to the dock at 1900, unloaded the catch, tidied the decks, and went home.
But even while I put the new career machine in motion, I wasn’t sure that I had the grit to fish. It wasn’t the long hours or going to sea in all weathers, it wasn’t the cold in winter or the inherent dangers of working on deck in high seas. It was my head—I knew that every day when the net came aboard my mind would flood with questions.
We, and many other boats, trawled for six and half hours. Our boat brought up about 200 kilos of fish—a reasonably good catch by today’s standards. The bulk was hake (merluccius merluccius) and blue whiting (micromesistius poutassou), there were two fully mature monkfish (lophius piscatorius) and a few midsized ones. But there were many unsaleable, juvenile monkfish, which hadn’t yet reached the minimum length of 30cm. The rapid change of pressure as the net rises kills the fish so these young monks were totally wasted. Rather than throw them to the seagulls the fishermen kept them back for their own use. The rest of the catch consisted of shrimps, prawns, crabs and octopus. The only fish to have survived the journey to the surface were the small-spotted catsharks or lesser spotted dogfish as they are also called, (scyliorhinus canicula), these lay doggo until you picked them up. Then they came alive with a vehemence wholly justifiable in those who have been plucked from their habitat. I threw the small shark overboard and exchanged glances with one of the fishermen as he picked a juvenile monk out of the pile. ‘This is the shame of fishing.’ He said, obviously assailed by similar doubts as me.
It’s difficult to write about commercial fishing, the more one investigates the more it appears that the problem goes far beyond greedy, unscrupulous skippers or mesh sizes. But I don’t intend to pursue these issues here. This, after all, is a light-hearted sailing blog.
I finished the Basic Sea Survival course and, still wrestling with moral dilemmas, was about to start the specific Fisherman and Sailor course when the phone rang. There was a job opportunity on the end of the line. I dropped everything.
I’m now a dockhand at Vilanova Grand Marina. This is a brand new marina geared specifically for wintering super yachts. Yes, I know. However, the yachts are permanently manned and many of the crew have worked previously on commercial vessels. Chatting to the skipper of one boat it transpired that he’d worked in the Irish trawler fishery as a youngster. Later he’d worked aboard the controversial Veronica ‘death ship’. And, just to bring these trawler posts full circle, one of his mates was Jason Schofield, the skipper of the Norlantean featured in Redmond O’Hanlon’s book.