Sardine (or pilchard) fishing has been a way of life in Cornwall for hundreds of years. This commission for Waitrose magazine covered the state of the industry and its past, present and future.
It’s half an hour after dusk, somewhere out in the middle of Mount’s Bay, but for fisherman Peter Bullock, the evening’s work is just beginning.
As the lights of Penzance promenade twinkle along the shoreline, he steers his boat Vesta further out into the bay, eyes flitting between his sonar screen and the flat sea ahead. Nearby, several other boats chug past, silhouetted against St Michael’s Mount as they scan the waters in search of their quarry: sardines.
“My job isn’t really that different to the old days,” Peter says, sipping tea from a chipped mug, one hand on the boat’s wheel. ‘Admittedly, we’ve got a few gizmos to help us nowadays – sonar, GPS, machinery and so on. But essentially it’s the same game as it was a century ago: find the fish, shoot your net, get ‘em into the boat and back to harbour quick as you can. And just like then, the trickiest part isn’t actually catching them. It’s finding the bloody things in the first place!” he says with a rueful chuckle, his face illuminated by the green glare of the navigation screen.
Then, a few minutes later, he spots something. A dark red shape appears on the sonar, and Peter shouts out to his two deckhands, Matt Round and Ian Haggis, to get ready. Suddenly, the deck of the Vesta is alive with action: the net is shot, floats whizzing out over the transom as Peter steers the boat in a wide circle, before completing the loop and letting the winch take up the slack. Slowly, the net draws tight, and a sheen of bubbles appears on the surface, followed soon afterwards by the prize: a shimmering, glinting, roiling mass of sardines.
“Decent catch, that is,” Peter says, watching his crew haul the fish onto the Vesta’s deck and into the ice-water tanks. “A good five tonne, I reckon. One more like that and we’ll be done for the evening. Happy days!” he laughs, a smile breaking out across his face as the crew stows away the net, ready for the next shot.
Sardine-fishing has been practised in this part of Cornwall for hundreds of years; at its height during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was almost as important to the local economy as tin-mining. Vast shoals of sardines (or pilchards, as they were then known) were a common sight up and down the southwest coastline, from Penzance to Plymouth. Entire communities relied on the fish for their livelihood, salting and drying the fish for export across the continent and beyond. But around the end of the 19th century, the market began to dry up; after peaking in the 1920s, the industry entered decades of decline, exacerbated by overfishing, competition from rival fisheries and the increasing availability of frozen fish.
By the 1970s and 80s the industry had dwindled almost to nothing, but that wasn’t quite the end of the story. In the early 1990s a local skipper based in Cadgwith, Martin Ellis, determined to start fishing sardines again – but rather than using traditional drift nets, he decided to maximise the quality of his catch by using ring nets, a technique more usually employed to fish herring and mackerel in Scotland. Martin’s strategy paid off: having effectively been unfished for decades, Cornwall’s sardine stocks were in plentiful supply, and soon supermarkets, fishmongers and chefs across Cornwall were clamouring for them.
Spin the clock forward twenty years, and the industry is in robust health: there are now thirteen sardine boats operating across the southwest (nine in Newlyn, one in Mevagissey and three in Plymouth), collectively exporting to a market that stretches right across the European Union.
“All too often the story around UK fishing is one of doom and gloom,” explains Gus Caslake, the regional manager for Seafish Southwest, which supports the UK’s seafood industry. “But Cornish sardines are a good news story. Stocks are thriving thanks to a careful programme of scientific monitoring and sustainable management, and everyone in the fleet is committed to protecting this resource for future generations. Forget cod and haddock. In my opinion, we should all be eating more sardines!”
As a pelagic fish, sardines grow quickly, growing to maturity in just three years. The main season runs from July to March, when the fish return from spawning out in the Atlantic. In winter, as water temperatures cool, they cluster together in shoals, making them easier to catch, but rarely moving far out into deep water. Since they prefer to stay in shallow inlets and bays, most Cornish sardines are caught within a mile or two of the shore, meaning that they can only be fished by small inshore boats rather than large factory trawlers.
It’s a model example of low-impact, small-scale, sustainable fishing. Each boat is capable of taking a maximum of thirty tonnes of fish per night, compared to a pelagic trawler’s potential haul of a thousand tonnes or more. Amazingly, the majority of Cornwall’s sardines are on their way to the customer within just a few hours of being caught. The fishermen have even formed their own steering group, the Cornish Sardine Management Association, to ensure best fishing practice across the industry. Their strategy is clearly working: according to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Cornish sardines are classed as one of the UK’s most sustainable fish, one of only two species to be awarded (along with Cornish hake) the MSC’s coveted blue label for sustainability.
“Sustainability is everything for us,” Peter says, his yellow overalls glinting with silvery fish scales. “Of course we all need to make a living, but we’re only scratching the surface in terms of the stock. Our main concern is to make sure there’s a future for this industry. Everything we do is geared around that.”
Across the bay, on the deck of the Resolute, James Roberts and his crew have just completed their second haul of the night. It’s another decent catch: three tonnes, bringing their evening’s haul to the target of ten. As the fish disappear down into the hold, James brews up some tea on a battered old camp-stove, just as the first sliver of sunrise pinks the horizon, lighting up the craggy shape of St Michael’s Mount.
“Fishing’s in my blood, I guess,” he says, steering his boat back through the gap of Newlyn’s granite-walled harbour. Now in his early thirties, James is one of the fleet’s youngest skippers, but he’s already been fishing for more than a decade, having served as a deckhand for several years before finally being given the chance to skipper his own boat.
“My great grand-dad was a sardine fisherman – sorry, pilchard fisherman, he’d tell me off for saying that! I got hooked on it aged eight or nine I suppose, when my second cousin took me out, and after that I always knew it’s what I wanted to do. For me, there’s something about being out on the water, in the elements, being part of this tradition that’s been part of Cornwall for so long.” He looks up at Newlyn’s old fish market, fresh from its recent multi-million pound revamp, and the tight-packed warren of fishermen’s cottages clustered over the steep hillside beyond.
“Down here in Newlyn, fishing is more than just a job,” he says. “It’s a way of life.”
Pilchard or sardine?
Officially, according to the UK’s Sea Fish Industry Authority, sardines are simply young pilchards; any fish under 15cm in length is classed as a sardine, while any fish over that is classed as a pilchard. But in most fishmongers and supermarkets, the catch-all term of ‘Cornish sardines’ is used – although it’s more a branding exercise than a scientific classification.