It was about 5.30 in the morning, perhaps ten miles off Barrow-in-Furness in the eastern part of the Irish Sea, still dark, when the haul broke the surface. In the glare of the floodlights on the stern of our vessel, the Fleetwood trawler Kiroan, the first net was hooked onto the power block – a huge hydraulic lifting arm – and skipper Philip Dell expertly pulled the bulging cod end from the water and swung it over the fish room hatch.
Philip held the bag there, suspended, so we could see thousands of tiny fish packed into the bag. Most of what we could see was small plaice, with scores of them protruding though the narrow mesh, gasping and flapping in their death throes.
An unseen hand below pulled the quick release on the end of the bag. The contents cascaded down a stainless steel chute onto the conveyor belt in the fish room, awaiting our further inspection.
We stayed on deck long enough to see the second bag plucked from the sea, its contents likewise dumped down the chute. Then I, Conservative shadow fisheries minister Owen Paterson, and the PPC for Blackpool North and Fleetwood, Gavin Williams, squeezed our way along the top deck, stepping over the still taut warp cables, and made our way down the vertical ladder to watch the crew sorting the fish.
As the first batch was sorted, we watched in mounting horror as Mate, Francois Bruneel with Steve McDaid and Gary Hugman, the enormously impressive crew, threw marketable fish into red plastic bins – not unlike laundry baskets – sweeping the rest, undersize and unmarketable fish along the belt. Lubricated by a constant flow of sea water, they were flushed through a small opening in the hull, back into the sea, dead and dying, from whence they had so recently been plucked.
That was the horror. From that first, bulging net, the harvest of the sea, we estimated that at least ninety percent of the catch was dumped – or "discarded" in the clinical jargon of the trade. By far the bulk of this waste was immature plaice, thousands of baby fish, some only three or four inches long, tiny, perfect replicas of the few remaining adult fish which would be landed later that day and sold for the dinner plates of the nation.
Then came the next batch, smaller in quantity – much smaller. Good, clean adult fish, mainly prime plaice, ripe for the market, tossed swiftly into the red bins, ready for gutting and cleaning. This time the bulk of the "discards" amounted to unsaleable "dogs" – lesser spotted dogfish. These were also flushed through the hatch. Plunging into the water, each shook itself like a canine, as if indignant at their treatment, and swum swiftly away from the trawler, none the worse for their experience.
So what was happening here? Why the obscene waste from the first batch – "next year’s harvest", one of the crew observed bitterly – and so little from the second?
As we grouped in the tiny mess room after the nets had been "shot" for the second time, supping mugs of scalding tea, Skipper Dell explained. It was the nets he was forced to use. They had been specified by the EU commission in regulations under the Common Fisheries Policy, perversely – to the utter frustration of all the fishermen of Fleetwood - as a "conservation" measure, supposedly designed to aid "cod recovery" in the Irish Sea.
If you wanted logic, Dell continued, there was none – none that he and his colleagues could discern.
His vessel, a 23 metre, twin rig trawler, built in Aberdeen in 1979, had been brought round to the west coast after years of service in the North Sea, to fish for the abundant plaice in the Irish Sea, turning to quota-free prawn fishing when the plaice had gone into hiding through the winter, or when the quota had run out.
Over the magic "10 metres" in length, his and each of the seven other like vessels in the Fleetwood fleet – down from over 40 in 1994 and over 70 in 1984 – had been given a "days at sea" allocation of 22 days a month, during which they were allowed out to earn their keep, chasing ever diminishing quotas that made it harder each year to make a living, as the diminishing number of vessels testified.
But – and here the "but" is in huge capitals – in order to fish all of those 22 days, he was required to use nets with a mesh size in the cod end of 80 mm. It was this net which had scooped up all these baby fish – the slaughter of the innocent – and caused his crew to throw them away dead, back into the sea.
Skipper Dell, and all his colleagues, much preferred to use a larger mesh size – 110 mm. It was this mesh that had been used on the second net and its efficacy had been startlingly demonstrated to us when Dell had brought up the "clean" catch, devoid of the immature juveniles. Not for nothing, the Fleetwood fishermen call the larger-mesh nets "riddlers" – they "riddle" out the smaller fish and let them escape, to grow bigger, to mature and breed, before they were caught for the table.
And therein lies insanity. Dell was allowed to use the 110 mm nets. But, if he did, the EU commission imposed a penalty on him, slashing his "days at sea" to 17 days. With the desperately marginal economics of the enterprise - the Kiroan uses a ton of diesel fuel each day, when out on the grounds - his livelihood was already at risk. The enforced cut-back would exclude him from the vital prawn fishery, drive his vessel onto the beach and his crew onto the dole. To stay in business, the only legal option Dell had was to use the smaller mesh.
Standing in front of us as we sat in that tiny mess room, bracing himself against the bulkhead to counter the pitching of the boat, Dell spoke with a passion born of frustration and sheer outrage – the outrage of a professional fisherman, thirty-five years at sea – forced to do something he knew to be wrong. "It needs stopping…", he said. "We’ve been doing this for ten months, and we’re slaughtering the fish."
It is not as if he and his colleagues had not tried to stop the slaughter. In January last, he and his colleagues had bearded fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw, when to came sweeping up from London to visit the docks. Dell had asked him to explain the policy. "He couldn’t", says Dell, but had asked his aide to jot down details of the complaint. "We never heard from him again", Dell added bitterly.
The Fleetwood fishermen did not leave it there. After constant complaining, fisheries scientists from CEFAS spent a month on board the sister vessel to Kiroan, the FV Artemis, observing the effects of the different mesh sizes. They too found that the larger mesh "dramatically reduced the bulk catch, therefore reducing discarding from 80 percent plus to less than 50 percent by volume".
That the smaller volume of "discards" comprised mainly dogfish was also noted. Crucially, the scientists’ subsequent report clearly stated that "the cod recovery plan has forced them (the fishermen) to work smaller mesh and kill (especially) smaller plaice."
But that was in May and now, nearly six months later – with perhaps millions more baby fish slaughtered - nothing has been done.
It was time for the second haul. Now bright daylight, getting on for ten in the morning, with the sea mercifully calm, Dell repeated the procedure we had seen earlier and again the fish cascaded into the fish room. Again we saw the obscene waste – the senseless slaughter of thousands of immature fish.
We saw something else, as well. A lot of the fish were very muddy. What was happening, Dell told us, was that the tiny fish blocked the mesh, choking it, so that mud and sand could not be washed clear as the net was towed. This was highly dangerous, sometimes increasing the weight of the catch to such an alarming extent that hauling it out with the power-block risked overloading the machine. Three times that season, Dell had been forced to take emergency action, slashing the nets open and dumping the entire catches, to prevent the lifting arm crashing down on his crew, working on the deck below.
"It's political", Dell said after the meagre catch had been iced and stowed away. Nine, six stone boxes of fish, including six of adult plaice, were dwarfed by the cavernous hold which had a capacity for over 400.
Dell believes that the mesh size was set at 80 mm to accommodate the fleet of huge Belgian beam trawlers, sometimes as many as 40-50 at a time, which exploit the waters. They are not after plaice, but the more valuable sole. And, with a 110 mm mesh, you cannot catch sole. They can curl themselves up to swim through the larger mesh, even fish the size of a dinner plate getting clear.
So the EU commission has given in to the Belgians. Back on the dock, Dell showed us the nets they used. Not only were they 80mm, but the twine was 6mm, grotesquely thick and so rigid that you could scarcely bend it. The mesh simply does not open up under tow, "Not even sand can get through that", Dell said, bitterness again clearly evident.
With massive, 4,000 horsepower vessels (the Kiroan, itself a powerful boat, has a mere 470 horsepower), dragging huge, 12 metre beam trawls at an amazing 6-7 knots (Dell tows at 3 knots), they hoover up everything, digging up the sand and mud to get at the precious, buried sole. We’ve followed up behind them, Dell said, and everything is dead.
The ultimate irony, in the "cod protection area", is that the Belgians have a by-catch of cod, caught accidentally as they pursue the sole, 30 times larger than the entire Fleetwood quota. And when we drew the attention for the authorities to that, says Dell, they started dumping the cod overboard, so that it is not declared. They don’t even want the fish.
We left Phil Dell and his crew on the quay, but not before he confided an important secret. Unlike other skippers, "I do not normally use 80 mm nets for plaice", he told us. "I refuse to slaughter fish – we use the 110 mm nets". The trip had been a demonstration to show us what he was supposed to do. But, under the rules, in so doing, and by having both types of net on board (he uses the 80 mm nets for prawns, where no plaice swim), he is breaking the law. He could be prosecuted and heavily fined. But he is prepared to take the risk. He cannot bring himself to slaughter fish needelessly.
My admiration for this man, and his colleagues, is unbounded, matched only by my utter contempt for these mindless officials of the EU commission who dream up such devastating rules and make honest men into criminals.
To give him his due, Owen Paterson was very angry as well. We all are. Damn these people, damn them, damn them, these smug, complacent offiicals. Like the millions of fish they cause to be sent to the bottom of the sea, to rot in a carpet of putrefying waste, may they also rot - in Hell.