Fishing for reel

Commercial fishing has come a long way since the days of rod and reel, handline and net. But do falling fish stocks show we’re now too good at harvesting the wealth beneath the waves?

Perhaps the old ways are best. Here we look at some of Europes last traditional fisheries. We start with some Dutch fishermen who are keeping it ‘reel’.

Dutch Bass fishing

fishing reel

Dutch Bass fishing – keeping it reel
Source: Jan Tik

Fishing doesn’t get any more sustainable than this. The whole fishery consists of just 21 small boats and their crews of three.

Together they harvest around 75 tonnes of sea bass from the North Sea each year. That’s 1.2 tonnes per person, a lot less fish per person than on a factory trawler.

The boats are anchored on wreck sites and fish are caught using fishing reel and rod. The bycatch is nil, the sea bed is protected and fish stocks are maintained. The catch is sold the same day, its freshness ensuring it fetches top prices.

Oyster dredging

oyster dredging

Traditional oyster dredging in the River Fal
Source: Cornish Native Oysters

As fishing methods go – they don’t get much more destructive than dredging for oysters or scallops. But there’s always an exception that proves the rule.

Falmouth in Cornwall boasts Europe’s most ancient oyster fishery. Traditional gaff rigged sailing boats and rowing punts haul three foot metal dredges over the muddy estuary silt. Because no engines are allowed, dredges are small, and weather conditions limit the number of days skippers can work.

The fleet doesn’t overharvest and so represents a uniquely sustainable fishing industry. The Falmouth oyster festival held each October, offers an excellent opportunity to savour the produce; the taste of the sea, Cornish style.

Goose barnacle picking

goose barnacles

Gathering goose barnacles is dangerous work
Source: Thomas Guest

Some seafood can only be harvested by hand. The goose barnacle fishery is one example. The long necked Spanish and Portuguese delicacy lives only on cliffs pounded by big waves and washed by strong currents. To be a successful goose barnacle harvester, or ‘percebeiros’, you have to be mad.

The technique? Tie yourself to a rock, dodge waves the size of houses and lever the creatures off the rocks. Then dart out of the way before the next wall of water smashes you to smithereens. Not for the faint hearted or sane.

Eel trapping

eels trapped

Traditional eel trapping in decline
Source: Peter Harrison

There’s only one traditional eel trapper left in the UK. Peter Carter’s family have trapped eels in hand woven willow traps, since at least 1470.

The Fenland tradition remains little changed since the bronze age. An archaeological dig in Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire found that the traps used by our ancient ancestors were virtually the same as those used by Peter today.

Sadly, eel numbers in the fens have dwindled in recent years as less elvers have made the journey from the Sargasso Sea, and over fishing has taken its toll.

Mud horse shrimping

Mud Horse shrimping

Last man shrimping in Bridgwater Bay
Source: Outdoor Life

Another last man standing – in the mud this time, is Adrian Sellick of Bridgewater Bay on the North Somerset coast. He uses a wooden sledge called a horse, to fish for shrimp.

Resting his weight on his belly, he uses his legs to push the contraption along. When he reaches the low tide line, he sets shrimp nets.

Catches aren’t what they used to be, and few young people are interested in such a hard, dirty life. Adrian is the fifth generation of his family to practise the art – sadly it looks like he’ll be the last.

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