Fish and chips famine

The sequence of Atlantic gales battering the British Isles is devastating news for commercial fishermen.

Unable to put to sea for weeks, some fishing families are feeling the pinch like never before.

Fish markets are empty or under-supplied, prices are soaring to their highest levels for years. For the consumer, the storms mean shortages, price hikes, and no fresh fish.

Livelihoods threatened

Looe fishing village

Image source: Looe
Cornish fishing town, Looe, is out of action

Looe in Cornwall is renowned for fresh fish from its day boat fleet. But some boats have been stuck in port for nearly two months now. That’s because static nets are the sea fishing tackle most Looe fishermen use. They set the nets one day and return to haul them the next. According to a fisherman interviewed by the BBC, there hasn’t been a two day weather window to allow boats to get out to work since before Christmas.

In fact, the port would be completely closed if it weren’t for one local mariner nicknamed, ‘Richard the brave’. The lone fisherman ventured out to sea, risking all to bring home a catch.

Fish markets closed

Ajax hake haul twitter

Image source: Ajax Hake
A rare but expensive haul of hake

The South West fishing industry has been battered by the recent storm surges, resulting in extreme shortages of fresh fish that saw Plymouth fish market close for a time during January.

More recently, the past weekend’s storm means there is very little fish available for sale this week – although anyone courageous enough to take on the mountainous seas and wild winds can expect top dollar for their catch.

Newlyn fish market was riding high this Monday thanks to successful hauls of hake and whitefish from local boat, Ajax. The skipper’s twitter comment on his catch: ‘Big money’. But for every boat that puts out to sea, there are many more that have stayed behind, leaving industry leaders, fishermen and others reliant on the fishing trade for income wondering when the weather will finally clear.

Boats sunk

Porthleven harbour storm

Image source: BT
What remains of Porthleven habour

For some Cornish fishermen even an improvement in the weather won’t see them heading out to sea anytime soon. During last Wednesday’s storm, the inner harbour doors at Porthleven harbour were smashed to matchwood by a sea described by shipping forecasters as, ‘phenomenal’.

Waves blown before storm force winds surged into the port sinking ten boats, damaging some of the vessels beyond repair.

Incredibly, efforts by fishermen and the emergency services to save the remaining boats in the harbour were hampered by the press of crowds of people who abandoned their cars at the side of the road to watch the waves.

Fishermen rescued

le-sillon boat rescue

Image source: All Boats Avenue
‘Le Sillon’ was struck by a huge wave in North Cornwall

Fishing is a risky business, and never more so when gales keep fishermen in port for too long. With finances stretched and the prospect of excellent prices for fish landed, it’s hard to resist the temptation to put safety aside and head out to sea in bad weather.

Fishermen riding their luck can make good money, but when it goes wrong, they pay a high price. In November last year, the five man crew of the French fishing boat, the Panamera wasplucked to safety by helicopter 25 miles off the Lizard when their boat began taking on water. It later sank.

In January, four crewmen were rescued when their fishing boat got into difficulty in bad weather and sank off Tynemouth.

And at the beginning of February, the crew of another French fishing boat had to be rescued by helicopter crews from RNAS Culdrose. ‘Le Sillon’ was struck by a monster wave off the North Cornish coast. Its bridge windows imploded, all the electrical gear was destroyed. The boat lost steerage and was later wrecked at Porthcothnan.

More to come

The position of the jet stream across the Atlantic means that winter storms will continue to lash the British isles for at least the next 10 days. Forecasters predict rising pressure and a return to more settled weather only towards the end of the month when hopefully fishermen will be able to begin to recoup some of the losses they’ve incurred.