I first went fishing for sardines with a friend of my dad’s called John when I was about 13-14 years old. We would go out just before dusk and have a look around the bay: John was a very experienced sardine fisherman and would carefully watch for signs of fish.
When John was happy we would shoot the nets in a line and then stop the engine so as not to frighten the fish. After an hour or two when it was dark we could start to pull the boat along the nets, taking the fish out as we went. A typical night’s fishing might be 300-500 kilograms but catches could exceed a ton.
Obviously, when I was growing up my fishing was part time – during school holidays and weekends. When I finished school I didn’t go straight into fishing but went to university instead. In the end, I really wanted to stay in Cornwall and enjoyed working in the fishing industry so I decided to focus on the fishing full time around eight years ago.
The sardine fishery was the most important fishery in Cornwall until the mid-20th Century. The Cornish word for sardine is ‘pilchard’, which is how I was brought up calling them.
The majority of coastal settlements in Cornwall originated as pilchard fishing ports, usually consisting of a collection of houses for fishermen, some facilities to process the fish, often a boatyard and perhaps a pub and a church. The fish were cured in salt then pressed into barrels, primarily for export; pilchards were prized in the Mediterranean countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Sardine fishing in Cornwall has been done for hundreds of years in two main ways. A single boat would cast a row of ‘drift nets’ handing like a curtain from floats on the surface. This was how I first fished for sardines.
The other method is a seine net which traditionally required a higher degree of teamwork and coordination between several boats. After waiting for a shoal of fish to come close to the shore, one or more large nets were cast around the shoal and pulled towards the beach. Once the fish were trapped, one-two boats with a smaller ‘tuck’ net would concentrate and retrieve the fish from within the seine and ferry them ashore. If a lot of fish were encircled it might take several days to process the catch!
Nowadays we use a different fishing method: a purse-seine or ring-net, similar to the historical seine fishing but a more modern approach. We work out of the harbour of Mevagissey, and tend to do the majority of our sardine fishing between The Dodman and Fowey.
My family have two boats, the 12m Galwad-Y-Mor and the 10m Girl Rachel. We have a sonar on the main boat which is like an underwater radar, so we go out an hour or two before dusk and have a look around the bay for shoals of fish.
The best time to shoot the net is dusk, when the fish tend to sit in concentrated shoals. So ideally we have found a shoal, and basically we shoot our net, which is 220m long, in a circle around the shoal of fish. Sometimes the fish move as you try to shoot around them so it can be really difficult!
At this point our other boat picks up a tow rope to the main boat to help us maneuver while we haul the ring net. The bottom of the net is like a drawstring bag which is pursed closed by a big rope so the fish can’t swim out the bottom.
We then haul the net back aboard the boat and end up with any fish concentrated in the last 15 yards or so alongside the boat. Then we can lift them aboard the boat around 100kg at a time. If we have a good catch we can put fish on the other boat too.
Once we have a catch of fish we go straight back to the harbour to land. The fish are landed into large tubs where a mixture of fish, ice and water mix together and the temperature of the fish drops to just above freezing.
Typically we start landing the catch less than an hour after catching them – the whole process just takes a few hours. When I know we have got fish to land, I can text the company I work with and they can send a lorry immediately to collect them.
The focus in the fishing industry is all about the highest quality catch nowadays.
Everything I catch goes to a company called Falfish who are the largest sardine processor in the UK. They have a factory at Redruth, where they process the fish, which are separated according to size and sold to various customers in the UK and abroad.
The sardine fishery is managed by the Cornish Sardine Management Association which all the ring-net boats are members of as well as the factories which process the fish. The sardine stock is non-quota but we set limits on how much the membership can catch in line with the available scientific advice.
The sardine stock in the area around Cornwall is currently estimated to be at least 240,000 tons and seems to be growing each year. The association helps collect data to better understand the stock levels and try to assist the scientists wherever possible.
Currently fishing levels are well within sustainable levels and our fishery is accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Sardines have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any protein source in the world, including fish farming and animal farming on the land. We caught hundreds of tons of fish last year on a single tank of diesel.
The fishery is well managed and is one of the most sustainable in Europe. There is very little bycatch, typically our catch is over 99% sardine when we are ringnetting.
Sardines contain Omega-3, vitamin B-12 and D, calcium and minerals – they are great if you want to eat a healthy diet. They are affordable and can be bought from most fishmongers.
My mum is good at cooking sardines! We tend to butterfly them, which means to remove the head, guts and bones, leaving a flat piece of fish.
We then season them with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and grill them. I’ve also had them fried which tastes great. Best served with crusty bread and a tomato salad!
Have a hunger for sardines? Check out Seafood Cornwall’s recipe video for classic Cornish sardines on toast.