If like me you enjoy squid and want to eat local, seasonal catch now is the time to ask your fishmonger for squid. Dan the Clovelly fishman is bound to have some. If you’re not sure what to do with it, ask your fishmonger (details on our fish page) or try some of SeaDog’s delicious streetfood. Jim and Beth are trying all sorts of internationally inspired recipes using North Devon’s seasonal catch – including squid!
The squid are blooming off the North Devon coast. I'm not sure if blooming is the correct term but when Boat Stories spoke to Paul Stone, skipper of the Sparkling Star, in Ilfracombe this week, his crew were unloading 50 boxes of squid. Paul told us that he always looks forward to the squid fishing every year because the catch rate is good, they can work locally on shorter trips and their fuel bill is down. “It’s uncanny,” he told me “how they appear the same time every year – only two days different from last year.” About a fortnight ago I met up with Marcus White, known as Tats who gave me a guided tour of Our Olivia Belle, the second trawler in S&P’s fleet – at that point Tats was waiting for the squid to arrive.
A group of tourists watched the catch being unloaded, hidden in ice. “Do you think they’ve got fish fingers in there?” one father asked his son. Helpfully, Paul produced a squid for everyone to look at but the youngster didn’t want to touch it. I thought Paul immensely cheerful and patient with the tourists (and me) considering he'd been on the go for 48 hours and had a two hour turn-around in harbour before they were back fishing again. No-one else in Ilfracombe got a look at the squid, they were loaded straight into a lorry bound for Appledore. The driver told me they would be processed overnight and sent abroad – probably to Italy.
Although it was nearly 9 in the evening, Clare from S&P fishshop turned up to collect her box of fresh mixed fish ready to sell in the shop the next day. Even she didn’t want squid – as she had some from the other boat. I love eating squid – and as fish goes it’s amazingly good value. So why does 90% or more of our local squid catch go abroad? The fishermen would like it if more of their catch was eaten locally - but even they don't seem to like squid. So maybe there isn't the demand? A question for Boat Stories to try and answer? Meanwhile I went on the hunt for squid for supper in Ilfracombe. It was late – but I couldn’t find any. I would have happily settled for squid and chips. But I did find delicious sea bass and chips – with the fish supplied by S&P fishshop.
I love their fish pasties and their menu seems to have something mouth-wateringly different on it every week. I wish their red trailer stopped at the end of my street. Look out for Seadog at festivals, the street food market in Barnstaple and in Braunton on Thursday evenings. They often tweet their latest menu: @seadogfoods
Watching the boats safely inside Ilfracombe harbour, begin to play a gentle dosey-doe with their moorings as the evening tide slowly rises, it’s difficult to imagine that only a few weeks ago this was the scene of “a dangerous nightmare” as crews battled to save their boats. Ilfracombe inner harbour walls are shaped like a pair of outstretched arms – ready with a welcome hug to offer a safe haven. But in the worst of the storms surges, giant swells rolled around inside these walls, bucking and jostling these same boats, lifting them right to the top of the wooden palings, bashing them against the walls and causing some serious damage. “We would have moored the boats in Bideford,” Scott Wharton owner of ‘S & P fish’ who runs a small fishing fleet from the harbour told me but “we didn’t get a break in the storms to move them. So his crew manned the boats “night and day using incredible skill to keep them safe” with the only respite at low tide.
The fleet is still counting their losses out at sea with about 200-300 crab and lobster pots missing and others “tangled and rolled up into a giant ball.” All along the harbour wall, each boat has a tale to tell of the storms. John Balls who runs a potting boat from Clovelly harbour described the force of the sea “smashing pots and rolling them together like a bunch of grapes.” When he was able to get out (the sea piled up a load of shingle partly blocking Clovelly harbour) he searched for his pots, ‘grappling’ with a giant hook on a long pole, to salvage them from the sea bed. He lost 25% and when Boats Stories found him he was in his shed “mending and making new pots.” There was pressure on the fishermen to get out in the lull between the storms but it wasn’t that simple because the fishing grounds were affected by the constant pounding. I met one young fisherman in Appledore who had just come ashore from several days on a trawler which came home “practically empty.” Fishing crew are on a percentage of the catch and a percentage of nothing is nothing!
“So what was it like during the storms for the fish?” I asked the fishermen. “You know when you walk barefoot on the beach, sometimes the falling tide has sculpted hard ripples in the sand,” Bideford based, trawler owner Dick Talbot, explained patiently. “Now imagine those sand ripples rising over 70 feet high into giant sand banks, that’s what much of the seabed is like out in the Bristol Channel.” Dispersed amongst these giant sand waves or hugging the coastline are patches of gravel or mud and weed. And then imagine as Scott said “a washing machine constantly churning everything round and round.” Add in the mud and silt which came down the rivers, as if you are adding laundry liquid through the dispenser and you create an entire water layer full of silt, sand and weed. Some predatory fish which rely on sight may have headed further out to sea. Geoff Huelin who runs a potting boat from Ilfracombe thought that lobsters might have trundled slowly into deeper water, whereas “crabs or whelks would bury in deep to sit out the worst.” I realised it was perverse to continually ask people who’d earned nothing all winter what it was like for the fish. “I reckon fish in the Bristol Channel are used to wild tides and stormy seas – if they didn’t like it rough they’d be living elsewhere,” one salty dog, who’d spent nearly seventy years, facing the waves off the North Devon coast, twinkled at me.
Happily during the last weeks of calmer weather, the tide has begun to turn. The boats are finding fish. Boat Stories was out researching films in Appledore and took this picture (above) of the Sparkling Star heading to the fish dock to unload her catch. In Ilfracombe even as I write, the boats have risen on the water and the Olivia Belle is preparing to cast her moorings and head out to sea. Meanwhile
Scott said it could take his business three or four months to recover and others fared far worse. So now is the time to buy fish and support your local fishing industry. Geoff will be shooting his first pots tomorrow, planning to have lobsters and crabs ready for Easter. S & P wet fish shop and cafe, just across the harbour from where I’m sitting, plans to open tomorrow: April 1st for business. Head to Ilfracombe to watch the boats rise or fall gently with the tide, or the harbour at work, while you eat a crab sandwich, at the licensed café, out in the sunshine.
A big thank you to all those fishermen and women who took time to speak to Boat Stories while they were trying to get their businesses back on track after the storms. See our fish page for a list of suppliers selling locally landed fish and seafood. We will be adding to it and talking about different types of sustainable fishing, seasonal fish and the fishing grounds our local fishermen voluntarily protect as the project progresses.
Jo Stewart-Smith March 31st 2014
Boat Stories Blog
All the latest news and stories from Jo Stewart-Smith, Boat Stories Producer