Eyemouth fishermen vent anger at EU regulations

THINK of world-class Borders food and folk name beef or lamb, but beyond the horizon of wild valleys and green rolling hills, we can forget the Borders is a coastal, sea-faring land.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 31st March 2010, 12:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 31st March 2010, 12:28 pm

Borderers enjoy a direct link to all the freshest fish in the North Sea, caught and fought for by fishermen on Eyemouth's last dozen boats, packed in ice or landed live on the harbour by 6am, and on your fishmonger's counter in Kelso, Duns, Melrose, Galashiels, and Hawick by opening time at 9am.

At most, a Borders fish travels a mere 50 food miles from the harbour.

We've more wonders in our waters than haddock, and more in our kitchen than batter and breadcrumbs – lovely though these are. We can wish any fish for tea: just ask your fishmonger, and the boats bring it in. If there's little variety on display, the problem isn't lack of supply, but lack of demand.

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"Everything's possible," raves Craig Rushton, head chef of Eyemouth restaurant Oblo, "you just ask and get it the same day or tomorrow, so we know how fresh it is."

Freshness joins diversity and low CO2 emissions in our small port's list of virtues.

"Some big boats coming into Edinburgh have been out at sea for 10 days, so you don't know how fresh the fish are," warns Cameron Crombie, fishmonger at J. Waddell and Son in Eyemouth for 30 years.

"Here fish comes in every night. Fillets in the shop are sometimes still kicking in the morning."

Stewart Aitchison of Eyemouth's D.R. Collin insists "We want boats in after two days for quality. Fish is off the boat by 6am and in Kelso by 9am. Supermarkets can't get that."

Like D.R. Collin and the town's third fishmonger D. Dougal and Son, Waddell's smoke herring and haddock in their own blackened smokehouse.

Smouldering on the stone cobbled floor lie piles of dense oak chips mixed with light, aerating pine - sweepings from a local wood turner - "the same stuff used for stable floors," Cameron adds.

In hot smoking, the fire burns near the rack for three to four hours in an enclosed space, like a cupboard.

In cold smoking, the haddock is suspended far from the fire in an open room overnight to prevent the slightest heat breaking the flesh apart.

Oily fish, like salmon, herring, sea trout and mackerel, aren't ready until oil begins to "sweat" or "bead".

Unless it's farmed and available all year round, for example sea bass, turbot, halibut, salmon and sea trout, fish is a wild food; you have to take what comes in, when tempests allow.

Deep North Sea fishing is the opposite of a gentle day angling on the Tweed. One typical spot is 200 miles from shore called The Devil's Hole.

"This year we're allowed 200 days to fish for prawns," says skipper Bryan Blackie of the 72ft trawler Bonaventure ("just a big hoose," in his words). "Prawns are hard work," he adds.

"The day never stops. But now everyone's catching prawns, the price has halved. I've just worked 11 days solid, because I have to make it pay. If we didn't have the Filippino crewmen, we couldn't go out to sea."

Like crab and lobster, langoustine are landed live, with 90 per cent exported within hours across the world, to the menus of Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants in London, Paris, New York and Japan.

Between March 1 to 31, each fisherman in the North Sea can catch a quota of 1,450 kg haddock, 750kg lemon sole, 250kg turbot and whiting, 200kg cod, 100kg monkfish, and 30kg of hake.

"In the glory days, we were bringing in 1,500 boxes in four days," recalls Bryan. "Now I have caught my yearly fish quota in two weeks."

Quotas are the price we pay today for over-fishing in the past. We've pushed fish stocks – and so fishermen too – to the edge. The days when we could walk on cod are over.

We must now be sensitive to season and sustainability. As a general rule, avoid species in spawn, when the next generation is being born, and flesh is in poor condition. Also bypass endangered species, to allow stocks to recover for our children or grandchildren's tables.

But worry not: few fish recipes can't be made with a good alternative. For simple advice on what to eat when, consult the Marine Conservation Society at www.fishonline.org.

Fishermen at sea, however, tell a different story, amongst themselves, in anger, frustration and despair.

"The North Sea's full of cod and haddock. I can prove it," vows Bryan. "But we're not allowed to catch it and we're going out of business. People won't believe us because they think fishermen are lying."

One fisherman of nearly 40 years added: "Nobody wants to see fish stocks annihilated. We've done everything that's been asked of us, but they just want more and more restrictions.

"You cannae earn a living with your hands tied behind your back. We need to get out the EU and maintain control of our waters, so we can fish sensibly."

A vicious circle emerges. Fishermen are catching plenty of cod accidentally, but they can't land it, or they'll lose what little remains of their livelihood. Instead they must chuck fish above their quota (now dead) back into the sea. So the authorities forever believe there's few cod, quotas stay slashed, and the fishermen will probably end up losing their livelihood anyway, as all but a dozen of Eyemouth's once 80-strong fishing fleet has done already.

What stops the circle? "Someone needs to tell the truth," said one Eyemouth man.

"It's mad. Absolutely mad," laments Stewart Aitchison of D.R. Collin. "Fishermen are penalised, and then penalised even further. They feel like criminals. Guys are just giving in."

"There are no youngsters coming into the job," said one 60- year-old. "When my generation's finished, that's it all finished."

"I'd sell the morn' if I could," sighs St Abbs skipper Johnny 'The Hook' Wilson of his 11-year-old boat Golden Shower.

"We're all so sick. There's nae future in fishing at Eyemouth. Every skipper will tell you the same."

"We've been Eyemouth fishermen all our lives," says Bonaventure captain Bryan Blackie.

"We've all been through the good times and bad times, and always weathered the storm, but this is the perfect storm.

"Look at Arbroath, it used to be full of boats. Dead. Pittenweem. Dead. Seahouses. Finished."

We can see the same tragic story played up and down the coast of Scotland, but now through the eyes of Eyemouth. There is though one reason to be cheerful: they're not gone - yet.

Whether or not we really are seeing the end of Eyemouth's fishermen, we at home still have the power to help them, and their dependent chain of fishmongers enhancing Borderers' quality of life - enjoy their fish, and give these guys their pride back.