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.


    1. John, I am saddened and disappointed that you have had no great success with your venture. I had great hopes, as I am sure you did as well. Thanks for having the vision and guts to try it.

    2. Thanks Thomas. I am currently fitting out the boat for cruising - fitting engines and tarting up the the interior to make it more saleable. I am also building a low power onboard computer - that combined with AIS and broadband radar might enable me to be less reliant on crew. When the bass are around in large numbers at the end of the summer, I may be tempted to remove the engines (outboards) and try to fish enough to cover my boat costs. So I haven't entirely given up - just moved it to the back burner to simmer. :)

    3. Your idea is maybe just ahead of its time. I'm currently lobster fishing off Matinicus Island on the Maine coast. I use oar, solar and occasional wind propulsion as well as a solar/electric winch. It all works beautifully. For a couple or three months a year. I hope to hear more even though you're not currently fishing. This set of ideas is not over. Here in Maine, sloops of 20 to 25 feet have been used in trap fishing because apparently, they can be stopped on a point pretty handily.