Bill Johnson is the assistant harbor master in Mousehole and skipper of the pilot Jen, a small boat of the inshore fleet. I know him because in summer, when tourists fill the tiny harbor with pleasure craft, he stands on the wharf offering conversation and advice. He is, of course, regarding the wreckage of Mousehole as a center of the pilchard industry and home to Cornish people. A century ago, the harbor was a forest of masts: now just six fishing boats sail out of here. The rest are kayaks and paddleboards. But Bill is a kindly man, and he smiles on them.
Fishermen were poster boys for Brexit, much lauded, discussed and used. It was easy to persuade them to the cause: fishermen understand freedom. They crave it, rising at dawn to chase the fish, and again at dusk, when the fish bite up again. But the promised six-mile limit hasn’t materialized yet, licenses are a nightmare of bureaucracy and avarice, regulation is chaotic and expanding, and the seafood industry hasn’t recovered from the paperwork Brexit brought. Even so, the Cornish inshore fleet of small boats hasn’t suffered a blow as grievous as the one Bill wants to talk to me about: the medical certificates imposed at the end of November. Master fishermen might labor under bureaucracy, they might be poorer, they might grumble about this and that, but they never imagined a Conservative government would stop them fishing.
Regulation is expanding, and the seafood industry hasn’t recovered from the paperwork Brexit brought
I meet Bill in the Old Ship on Mousehole harbor. He grew up in Paul, the village on the hill, and moved here when he was seventeen. He crabbed part-time while working as a gardener, then moved to a big boat. “That’s what you do here. You just fish.” Fifty years ago, his first pay packet was $300, more than seven times his gardening wage: a fortune. “There was a lot more freedom on what we could catch and what we could land,” he says. “We could land any fish we caught.” Now he fishes for “anything you can get over the rail and sell at the fish market. Pilchards, red mullet, pollock, bass, cod and hake.” As the sea warms, Mediterranean fish are coming: red mullet, bream and octopus. Mackerel is moving north to colder water, but tuna chase them. Crayfish, crabs and lobsters are declining. Fishermen are adaptive by nature. They have to be.
Bill’s trajectory is common: older fisher-men use smaller boats. But since Brexit, which promised an end to bureaucracy, they are drowning in the same bureaucracy that big boats need. Bill must record his catch on an app when he is still at sea. “If it’s more than 10 percent out, I can be prosecuted. I have to weigh it on the boat — it’s impossible. The app doesn’t work here of course.” It’s easy on a big boat with a big catch, he says, but for him, with “ten species of one pound a piece, not so much.”
There are new safety codes written by people who don’t understand boats (though there are grants for upgrades). There are trackers, but implementation has been chaotic, with approval for certain suppliers being withdrawn. (Again, there is a grant, but not everyone has the money to lay out.) They are worried about cameras on boats coming next, which is absurd: these are boats that rarely fish out of sight of land.
By far the worst threat is the medical certificate: the dreaded ML5, valid for five years, or one year if you are over sixty-five. It’s part of a 2017 international convention that Ireland, for instance, has opted out of. Without the ML5, the fisherman will not be able to sell his catch. This will consign the elder fisherman to a dystopia which I, an outsider, find extraordinary. He will be a tourist in his own land, yet deprived of means. Bill had a triple heart bypass: he fears he will not pass.
Others fear this too and are already leaving. Bill knows an elderly fisherman at Penberth who gave up because he couldn’t work the app. Another left because he feared he was going to fail the medical. He will keep his hand in by making nets. Hundreds of small boats are for sale all over Britain. Bill notes “the stress that it’s having on people. Such a long wait to lose their job, lose their livelihood.” The average wage of an inshore fisherman is $25,000 a year, but fishermen are gamblers. You could net $1,300 of bass before breakfast. If it’s stormy and no one else is out, prices go up. There’s always one madman. Now he will have to work in Lidl, or not at all.
They lobbied, but were told it was unfair to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The RNLI, of course, is crewed by fishermen, who would rather be picking up fishermen than kayakers who paddle to Lamorna on a rising tide and can’t get back. Bill says there hasn’t been a shout for a fisherman with an underlying condition in a small boat as far back as he can remember. Usually it’s French trawlermen chopping their arms off, or people who buy blow-up paddleboards in Lidl: “Next thing they are six miles off, being brought back. There are more shouts for the lifeboat from the, er, leisure industry than from the commercial industry.” He’s being polite. There’s a letter of commendation on the wall of the Sennen lifeboat house congratulating the coxswain on not punching a kayaker who, though his life was in danger, didn’t want to get in the lifeboat because he thought knew better than the coxswain. (That was the subtext at least. I wonder if the kayaker was a civil servant.)
Bill understands safety at sea. He served on the Solomon Browne. “It’s usually a commercial fisherman that sees the distress and raises the alarm to get them [paddleboarders and kayakers] saved,” he says. “The more eyes out there, the safer it is for everyone.” And, he adds: “It’s safer to have a heart attack on sea than land and wait for an ambulance.” The ambulance wait times here are as notorious as the Dogs of Scilly: they are more likely to kill you.
All this makes no sense to the fishermen, who understand that a government that promised freedom is now taking the remnants of it away, and for what? Fishing, Bill says, is an avenue to well-paid, independent work. But few lads want to work in an over-regulated industry. The small boats do less damage to the seabed and fish stocks. Beam trawlers are “raping and pillaging the seabed. Deep sea netters are hammering the grounds.” Big crabbers have so many pots that they lose them, and lost pots are filled with “ghost fish,” lobsters that are never pulled up and die in the pot. Young lobsters go in to eat the dead and suffer the same fate. It’s a metaphor for the treatment of the inshore fleet, I think: pointlessness, ruin, waste.
The fishermen understand that a government that promised freedom is now taking the remnants of it away
“Do you eat fish?” Bill asks me, curiously. I like white fish, I tell him. “I like fishing for Dover Sole,” he says. “They always hold their price — $15 a pound. Once you skin them, they are so sweet, they’re lovely. Don’t have to burn a lot of oil to get there, at most half a mile.” He points west, towards Lamorna. The fishermen, he says, are “the last of the hunters. The things you see, particularly in the early morning! Fish rashing, dolphins feeding on the fish that are rashing, the sunrise, the western shore: passing the cliffs at Porthcurno Cove with the sun on them, what a commute to work. Yeah, the best — every day is different, every catch is different.” He says he went out in a group of four boats recently. “All four [men] had open heart surgery and all of us chasing the mackerel towards the Lizard. There must be something about this job that keeps us going. Now they are trying to stop all that.” Twenty years ago, there were twenty boats fishing out of Mousehole. In twenty years, he thinks there will be none.
So this is a war on small boats, a race towards generic and unhappy lives. Who will save the small boats? Not the big boats, who are pleased to lose the competition. Not government, who legislate like men who have never been in a boat. For small boat fishermen, who overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, this is the final insult. They were promised so much: a Brexit boom, and the trumpet call of freedom. Instead, they got more over-regulation than Ireland, and this.
A few weeks ago, I get a message from Bill. He failed the medical. I ring him, and he sounds resigned, but he’s a Cornishman. This is a duchy that increasingly exists for others. There’s not much left to strip away.