Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The most sustainable fisherman of all!

I have caught so few fish, I have decided to quit! If every fisherman caught as many fish as I have, the oceans would be teeming with fish. We could walk from England to France on the backs of giant cod. I've fished sustainably, but the fish haven't sustained me.

So this is my final posting to this blog - I'll leave it as a record for other who may be considering similar plans.

There are several fishing methods I have dismissed without even trying:
  • Trawling: I might have the power to pull a small net downwind in a gale, but I can imagine the danger of snagging the bottom in such weather. It always was a dangerous occupation!
  • Drift netting: Much more feasible from a sail boat, but too much by-catch. Chucking dead dolphins back into the sea would spoil my day.
  • Potting: I'm in a prime area for potting, but retrieving pots needs accurate manouvring which is hardly feasible with a sailboat. If I was allowed an engine, I could use the sails to get to and from the fishing grounds and the engine just for retrieving the pots. But to have an engine I'd have to have a commercial license which isn't feasible.
  • Longlining: As with potting, retrieving the line means driving down the line accurately. Not really feasible under sail. In some benign conditions it may work, but a change in the wind direction could mean the line could no longer be picked up.
So, here are the methods I've tried:

Wrecking: Rod and line fishermen typically drift over a wreck, catching fish as they pass the wreck. Around slack water, they can anchor by the wreck. I can't drift over a wreck - well I can, but hoisting sail to get back to the start of the drift and then dropping sail to fish another drift would be a ridiculous amount of work. So I figured I'd learn to anchor in just the right place. Once I had the anchor down, I could adjust my position up/down tide by changing the length of anchor line I had down, or across the tide by altering the anchor line position athwartships, setting the catamaran at an angle to the tidal stream.

I knew I'd need to anchor accurately, so I created a database of all the wrecks in the area, and wrote some software that enabled me to find them easily. I also paid quite a bit for a fishfinder, so I could see the bottom well - sail right over the wreck to be certain of the position, and see if there are any fish there. At each wreck, I'd spend some time looking at the tide and wind, before deciding on a spot to set the anchor, and drop back towards the wreck.

This is far more difficult than it sounds! At slack water, not too much of a problem. But the tide is more complex than I'd realised. Out at sea, it doesn't just flow back and forth. It's change of direction is often circular. It goes right round the compass. Of course, most of the time, it flows one way or the opposite. But even then, the speed of the flow is constantly changing. Which alters the position of the boat a little as the anchor line goes tighter or slacker. And the speed of the flow has a greater effect on where the fishing lures end up. I've realised too that the flow varies with depth, certainly in strength, and I suspect in direction too - just as the wind direction varies as you go higher into the atmosphere. When the tide is flowing fast, your line is taken away from the boat in a parabola. Without a massive weight, it is impossible to reach the bottom with the lure. On top of that, if the wind changes direction...

So with wreck fishing, I've ended up spending most of my time trying to get the  catamaran into the right position, then fishing with different weights on the line trying to get the lures into the right place. It's been a lot of work (especially as I don't have a windlass, and we had to winch the line back by hand. Pulling up over 150 metres of line by hand is hard work, especially if the wind is blowing!).

There's another problem with anchoring over wrecks. It really pisses off the line fishermen who drift over the wrecks. They can't do it with a boat anchored there. Anchoring over a wreck pretty much claims the wreck all for myself. And there are so many line fishermen targeting any wrecks within 20 miles of the shore - well, I don't think I could cope with that much unpopularity. And the wrecks further offshore - which are far more productive anyway? Well, out there there are ships. And none of them expect any boat to be anchored so far offshore. So I'm at a great risk of being run down. Having decided that a ship is on a collision course, the only option would be to drop the anchor line overboard and set sail - not something that could be done quickly enough.

Trolling: The system I devised for this, the modified downrigger, works great. I can sail about at up to 3 knots, and still have my lure close to the bottom. But unless I hit a shoal of bass, I won't get many fish this way. The fish are at the wrecks, and sailing backwards and forwards past a wreck with the lures down is hard work. Turning a sailboat requires a lot more work that turning the steering wheel of a motorised boat. I plan to use this method from a motorboat (fishing to fill my own freezer) to allow me to fish over wrecks even when the tide is flowing strongly.

Trolling with a longline: Once I'd given up on the idea of anchoring over wrecks, I had really set my hopes on trolling with a longline. Towing a line such as this:
trolling a longline
past a populated wreck should catch a lot of fish. It means I just have to sail to a wreck, and carry on sailing to pull all those lures right through the right place.

However, try as I might, I haven't succeeded in getting the line set without the snoods (the short pieces of line between the lure and the mainline) wrapping themselves round the mainline, and sometimes, even the droplines (the lines between the float and the weights) getting entangled with the snood/mainline mess. I thought having a lead weight halfway down the snood would prevent the tangling, the lead holding the snood from the mainline. When small weights didn't work, I tried larger ones, but that was worse. Eventually I realised that setting a longline while dragging the line through the water means that at some point on the descent, a snood will lie parallel to the mainline, and will inevitably spin to some extent, wrapping itself round the mainline. The size of the weight doesn't really matter.

When engine-powered boats set longlines, they anchor one end to the seafloor then drive off, paying out line and connecting snoods as they go. I can't anchor a line to the bottom, as explained above. And to pay the line out, the boat has to be moving, even if slowly. The snoods end up tangled. No doubt if I persevered, there would be times I'd succeed in getting the line down OK, and pulling it past a wreck, get a decent haul of fish. But more often, no doubt, I'd get tangles or lose some gear. (One day, my basket of snoods was blown over by the wind. It took me 6 hours to untangle the mess.)

The other major problem!

An occasional good haul of fish might seem worthwhile. After all, my fuel costs are zero or close to it and I can cover almost any distance for free. My ice boxes can hold ice for several days, even through hot summer days. But a great problem I can't solve is crew.

I can't keep watch 24 hours a day. I need at least one crew member. Hauling in the longline is a two-person job. And really, it needs to be someone who can handle the boat, and who has experience with sailing at night, able to recognise which way ships and fishing boats are going just from the lights they are showing. That way, I could sleep. The crew also need to be on hand as soon as the weather is good for fishing, able to stay out for several days, and have something else to be getting on with between trips.

There are any number of keen anglers out there who would love to visit some of the far off wrecks. But since I can't drift them over a wreck, their rods and lines would be no use. Somehow, they just don't get the same kick out of  hauling in a longline as they do from reeling up a fish with their rod bent double.

I have had quite a few crew during my experiment, from experienced sailors to complete novices. They've all come for a sail, a lark, to help with my experiment, or even, to have a shot at making some money. I'm sorry for the disappointment of these latter types, and am grateful for the help of all of them. The fishing gave us an excuse to go sailing, and to play about with various schemes and we certainly had some laughs along the way.

And the fish of the future? Well, if the oil runs out before we run out of fish, the fish populations will likely rebound, and we'll all be able to catch fish from the shore, or little boats using 'inefficient' methods may be good enough. I guess it's our technical efficiency at catching fish that has reduced their number to such a level where we can't really catch fish without using even more technical efficiency. While that remains the case, I don't think there's much prospect for fishing under sail - in the English Channel at least.

    Monday, 26 July 2010

    The end of the line?

    My last trip was shorter than planned, but more tiring, so I've had to catch up on sleep a bit before reporting.

    My inexperienced crew were on time, and we got to Brixham by 8:30. On the way to the mooring, I called in at the ice factory to check whether there were any trawlers due in to collect ice. It would be nice to use my new engine installation, motor the catamaran round to the ice, load up and be off again in a few minutes. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be that way. The engine installation works great, and at half rev's with just the 6hp engine, we were able to do 4 knots, and manouvre quite easily. But when we got the ice quay, there was a trawler occupying the space, just beginning to load up. All we could do was circle about, trying to avoid traffic, as we waited for the quay to become free. Long after they'd loaded ice, the trawler showed no signs of moving on, so I had to go alongside and ask when they'd be going. Of course, since my boat looks like a yacht, not a fishing boat, the skipper had no reason to think that I was waiting for ice.

    I wanted just 200 kg of ice. I can't expect the ice man to do anything other than give priority to trawlers, who load up with many tons of ice. Oh well, we got alongside fine, and shot the ice straight into the fishboxes, and left the harbour at 11 am.

    The wind was forecast as northerly, force 3 - perfect for reaching the 20 miles to the wrecks where people have been catching bass. Within half an hour, the wind dropped to nothing at all. After an hour or so of flopping about, I cheated, and remounted the engine and motored for an hour, till the wind arrived again.

    But it came from ENE and light, which meant I had to tack to the wrecks, and I couldn't get more than 3-4 knots. And the tide was against us - which meant we didn't arrive at the wrecks till 6 pm.

    Still we set the long line, using bigger weights on the snoods to prevent the snoods spinning round the mainline, and an improved system for setting the lines between the floats and the weights.

    I left it down for 4 hours, sailing in increasing wind, but with just a storm jib up and a well-reefed main to keep the speed down to 2 knots. We sailed right over two wrecks, 3 miles apart. Well, according to my navigation software we did, but I couldn't verify it with evidence from my fishfinder.

    My fishfinder is PC-based, and connected with a USB cable to my laptop. One fundamental flaw with this setup is that if I put the USB cable from the fishfinder into a different USB slot in the laptop, the fishfinder won't work any more. Changing the order of where I put the USB cables mucks up the com port settings, and the fishfinder becomes unusable. I know this because I've done it before. It took the best part of a day, uninstalling stuff, cleaning out the registry, reinstalling etc. Of course, I then labelled the USB ports - GPS, fishfinder, phone. No problem. Till I carelessly used the wrong USB slot again! Doh!

    Were we really over the wrecks? Very probably. Were there fish on the wrecks? I don't know! When we pulled the line up, we had just one small fish, a pollack or a pouting, which wasn't even hooked - it was hanging on the the tail end of a lure, and let go when it came to the surface. But worse, the snoods were almost entirely wrapped around the mainline, despite changing the weights half way down each snood. And some of the braid that goes between the floats and the weights was also entangled with the snoods and mainline, and some had to be cut away. What a disheartening mess!

    We clearly couldn't use the trolling longline method again this trip, without an enormous amount of work sorting out the line - and without a clue as to how to prevent the same mess happening again.

    I sailed slowly about the area of these wrecks, considering what to do next, while the crew got some sleep. I thought I might try the rods and downrigger set up. This was a setup designed to work on places like large banks, where I could troll lures some distance, sailing back and forth. It would be hard to use over wrecks, fishing and sailing back and forth with the required accuracy.

    While I pondered such things, and why the trolling longline had tangled so badly, I had a busy time avoiding a couple of beam trawlers that were working the area around the wrecks. Their courses were quite unpredictable, and they had such bright deck lights going, I was convinced that their skippers were unaware of our prescence. They wouldn't expect a yacht drifting about the area, and I guess they didn't look. So, I had to sail away from the area. No way could I leave my crew on watch in these circumstance! No sleep for me!

    The wind was now from the NW, blowing from Brixham, and quite hard. Even with storm sails up, we were doing 4 knows close-hauled. So I left it at that a while, working my way slowly upwind so that in the morning we'd have an easy short sail back to the wrecks. But the wind was very variable, and there was still the odd boat around. I could see that I couldn't call on the crew to do a watch, and that I wouldn't get any sleep that night. Tomorrow, I'd be in no fit state to fish, and if we wnet back to the wrecks in the morning, the charter boats would be back fishing them, and again, I couldn't leave my inexperienced crew in charge amongst other boats.

    So as the wind died slowly through the night, I just hoisted more sail, and set off to return to Brixham. Six mile froms Brixham the wind died entirely again, so I fitted the engine and motored again. Why not? This wasn't fishing any more!

    The engine worked great, and I was able to motor right up the mooring and pick up the mooring without help. Three hours motoring in total used just 4 litres of fuel.

    But of course, no fish! Again. Back at the mooring after a lot of work, and no sleep, again!

    Sunrise, approaching Brixham in the dying wind.

    Wednesday, 21 July 2010

    Sustainability of line-caught fish clarified

    The more time I spend fishing, the more I learn. But I've spent so much time working on the boat the last few weeks, I've had to resort to going for a beer with a couple of marine biologists to carry on with my learning.

    They tell me the reason all the inshore wrecks are so devoid of fish is that they are frequently netted. Boats lay nets alongside the wreck, and pick them up 12 or so hours later. The nets catch almost everything, including dolphins. Often, nets become tangled on the wrecks and have to be abandoned. These are the wrecks line fishermen find 'snaggy' - we lose our lures on them. Of course, the nets continue to catch fish, even though they are not retrievable.

    Tomorrow, I'm going to fish the wrecks in Lyme Bay - the bass have arrived at last. I saw last year that some of the wrecks there were netted - I might have to sail by a few before I find one that is suitable for line fishing. If I see a boat pulling in a net from a wreck, I may stick around to watch what comes up.

    Finding crew is often a problem. Until I catch reasonable quantities of fish, pay is minimal or non-existent. Being available to fish whenever the weather is reasonable and going out for 2-3 days or more, working shifts (we need someone on watch at all times) - somehow, people find the prospect unappealing. However, I have persuaded my 16-year old daughter and her boyfriend to try a trip. Last time she sailed, I think she spent most of the time playing with Lego bricks on the floor of the cabin. I don't think he's sailed at all. Should be interesting... and we will also have on board a professional photographer, who wants to document a trip.

    With my new engine installation, inexperienced crew, and a passenger with a camera, what could possibly go wrong?

    Tuesday, 13 July 2010

    Thoughts on sustainable fishing

    Now that I've found the fish, if my longline techniques work as hoped, it should be no problem going back and getting them as soon as the weather clears. Till now, I've been the most sustainable of fishermen - using no fuel, and catching no fish - sailing about dripping fresh water onto the sea as my ice slowly melts.

    We know there's a problem with trawling. That's why we have quotas, regulations on net sizes and designs, limitations on days at sea, and boat scrappage incentives. More bureaucratic constraints to counter the effects of improved technology. A modern trawler is computerised and loaded with fantastic echo sounders and satellite information giving sea temperatures and of course GPS. Trawlers can now predict where fish are likely to be, go there directly and precisely, see the sea floor in 3D, see where the shoals of fish are and trawl their nets at just the right depth to scoop them up with clinical efficiency.

    Pretty good really, apart from the indiscriminate nature of trawling - so that fish that weren't targetted or that are subject to quota are thrown back dead. And of course, the never mentioned dependency on cheap oil.

    The solution often put forward to this industrial fishing is small scale line fishing, which almost eliminates by-catch and doesn't wreck the sea floor as beam trawling does. But there are problems with line fishing too!

    Line fishing is only really productive on wrecks. The sea floor in the English Channel is mostly flat and barren, but there are thousands of wrecks dotted all over the place and fish congregate around them. The wrecks provide shelter and with all the nooks and crannies, a diverse environment where many species can flourish. I have a theory that the iron in the wrecks may promote life in the sea too, iron being a limiting factor for plankton. But that's just my theory. Anyway, the wrecks are where the fish are.

    The wrecks have been mapped, because if you are trawling, catching your net on a wreck can wreck the net or worse. So trawlers like to go round the wrecks (though a skipper may go as close as he dares). The wrecks provide some shelter for the fish from the trawlers. Wrecks are like mini-conservation zones.

    Except even the small scale fisherman is now armed with all he needs to exploit the wrecks. I have a pretty complete (I'm pretty sure) database of all the wrecks in the English Channel and beyond. And all the reefs, banks, rocky outcrops. I've got GPS - who hasn't? Many of the wrecks have their positions marked accurate to within 10 metres. So now many of the wrecks have nets laid alongide them. Which spoils things for line fishermen, so they favour the unnetted wrecks.

    From my trip on Sunday, systematically trying wrecks further and further offshore, it is clear that the inshore wrecks are virtually empty of fish. You can catch some decent fish, but it takes time, jigging your lure about, waiting and waiting. On the wrecks further out, you drop your lure and get a hit right away. That's where the fish are.

    But they are being cleaned out by line fishermen. Commercial guys and armies of anglers on charter boats. Look at this fishing report for Dartmouth based trips. The charter boats don't bother with the inshore wrecks any more. They go for the mid-Channel wrecks. Mid-Channel! The wrecks halfway across. Trouble is, if you go any further out, you meet the French line fishermen coming the other way! The wrecks in the middle are the last to be targetted. I heard that one of the most experienced commercial line fishermen working out of the Dart was considering going as far as the Western Approaches to find unspoiled wrecks. Previously productive wrecks were now producing nothing more than small pollack. Those fishermen with their 'sustainable' methods are clear-felling the fish populations on the wrecks!

    Where will it end? It will end where the fish are so far off as to be uneconomical for the deisel-powered line fishermen to reach. And that's where I come in, able to cover great distances for free. If I get my methods sorted out, I'll be able to clean out the places other fishermen can't reach. And I'll be able to sell my fish as sustainably caught, (line caught, no by-catch, no harm to the sea-floor) and close to zero carbon consumption. The grim irony blackens any green credibility I may appear to possess.

    Monday, 12 July 2010

    Fish for the Freezer

    Just a day's work from completing the outboard project on the cat, and I'm offered a trip on a friend's brand new turbo-diesel powered fishing boat. With the weather prospects for the next few days ruling out fishing on my own boat, I figured I could take the time out. Besides, if I took my laptop and we used the wreck finding program, I'd get the chance to see which wrecks were populated with fish. The boat does 30 knots, so in theory, we could get to some real out of the way wrecks. We can't sell any fish, being unlicensed, but there's room in my freezer.

    The boat is not yet fitted with an auxiliary engine. This bothered me. Sailing is usually slower, but a mast and sails are much simpler and more reliable than an engine.

    4:30 start! Not to catch a tide, or avoid bad weather later. Not to increase fishing time either, because we can always just keep fishing through the evening. But an early start seems to be a tradition amongst anglers, the grogginess from getting up in the night making a peculiar memorable day more likely.

    The wind was light, but wind during the night had left quite a swell, and 10 miles out of Dartmouth we'd had to slow down to 8 knots or so. It would be hours before the swell died down, so we abandoned our objective of the Hurd Deep and the Channel islands and headed back towards Dartmouth, to where the swell was less, and then west to the Cat Banks. The ride was rough. It was a case of either wedging yourself in somewhere, or standing up and using your legs for suspension. Breakfast was off the menu, and even ordering breakfast would be difficult over the whine of the turbo.

    Years ago, the Cat banks could be pretty reliable for cod, ling and pollack, and sometimes bass. Yesterday, we caught one cod and a few small pollack, but first time for me, a John Dory, the only fish I've heard of with a proper name. Never seen one before, but apparently this is a big one:

    As the swell died, we made our way further out into the channel, wreck by wreck. Nothing but small pollack and pouting, that we threw back. We kept some of the bigger pollack.

    Finally, at 4 pm, we got to a wreck about 40 miles from Dartmouth, between the shipping lanes. Here there were fish. Lots of them, and right away I had first a big cod, then a big pollack:

    These were the biggest fish of the trip, looking less than spectacular after a night on ice. Normally, I'd fillet and freeze them right away, but this trip was different....

    We caught several more cod, and many pollack, and we got fish every time we drifted back over a certain spot. When I say 'we', actually, I mean mostly 'me'! I got the John Dory, the biggest pollack, the biggest cod - in fact all the cod but one. So...

    • I'm a better fisherman than the other three very experienced fisherman.
    • I was dead lucky.
    • I used the best lures.
    It might be nice to think the first was true, but I think the third option is most likely. Three Jelltex shads with a 12 oz. Fishtek lumo pirk on the end. Like in the picture on the left. These weren't the actual lures I used - I left them on the boat. On the rig I used, the bottom shad was a Jelltex lumo shad, and that caught I'd guess one third of the fish I got, the rest hitting the pirk.

    That the others didn't switch to what I was using straight away suggests that they were thinking I was just lucky, and that their efforts with live mackerel, sidewinders, pirks without the softbaits, softbaits without pirks etc were sure to pay off some time soon never happened. What makes this odder still is that the owner of the boat is the owner of Fishtek! The guy that designed and made the lures - so of course, we had heaps of Fishtek gear available.

    Anyway, after a rewarding session like that, I make no apology here for rating Fishtek stuff and adding the link here. These lures are even better than the manufacturer claims! That's the case Pete isn't it? Either that, or you reckon it was all luck, because it couldn't be the first option could it?

    The fishing stopped when the near spring tides got into full flow, and we could hardly get to the bottom any more with our lures. We set off back towards Dartmouth, intending to hit another wreck on the way when the flow had dropped a little, but still 35 miles off, the engine quit.

    It was obviously a fuel problem, despite the gauge reading 1/4 full. We had a 20 litres tank, tipped that in, prime pumped the engine a couple of times and we were off again, but this time at a gentle fuel-conserving speed, and headed directly for Dartmouth.

    3 miles out of Dartmouth, just as we were getting the camera out to take some snaps of our catch, the engine died again. Out of fuel. No auxiliary engine. The fuel gauge was still reading 1/4 full, so we unscrewed a bulkhead and some straps to pull out the tank. It was very nearly empty. The pickup pipe was fine, reaching close to the bottom. The best we could do was to hold the tank at an angle to gather the remaining fuel into a corner, and rerig the pickup pipe so that the end was submerged in the corner.

    That got us home, but only just, and very late. The engine conked out again, right at the mooring. And I conked out before I could fillet and freeze the fish, so they were left covered in ice for the night.

    A memorable day then, as intended I expect. Fish in the freezer, and I'll be having John Dory for lunch for the first time - it's supposed to be really great tasting. We'll see.

    The fact that the inshore wrecks are now empty of fish has got me wondering again about sustainable fishing, but I haven't finished mulling over that, so I'll leave it for another posting.