Visitors to Scilly sense the islands’ special nature as soon as they arrive. In addition to being designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Heritage Coast, the crystal clear seas around this group of 200 low lying, granite islands and rocks have Marine Park status. Fishing continues in these waters as it has since the islands were first occupied more than 4,000 years ago, but it is a shadow of what it once was in its hey day when, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, fish was one of the islands’ primary exports.
Commercial fishing, while subject to the same regulations as the rest of the Cornish fishing industry, is also distinctly different here and is probably closest to the ideal of a sustainable, inshore, mixed-species fishery. Around 30 boats work in these unpolluted waters, many selling a mixture of fish and shellfish direct to the islands’ pubs, hotels and restaurants. This includes lobster, crab and crawfish, grey mullet, pollack, wrasse, mackerel, whiting, turbot, conger eels, red mullet, John Dory, monkfish and flat fish such as brill and plaice.
The Scillonian fishing fleet is almost exclusively made up of vessels that are less than 10-metres long, with one exception, the netter Victory of Helford, which is 10.37 metres. Steve Watt, the Isles of Scilly Maritime Officer, believes that a balance has been found between vessel numbers and resources: ‘The numbers are much less than 30 or 40 years ago, when there was quite a big fishing fleet. Now it’s a workable number but it is difficult to make a full time living from fishing.’
Two boats fish full time and fewer than 10 people earn their living solely from fishing. The rest are part-time. Some stop fishing in November or until poor sea conditions make it unsafe, others carry on until Christmas and start again the following spring.
‘We don’t have as much shelter as in Cornwall, and we’re much more exposed to the tides and weather,’ explains Mark Pender, who probably fishes for nine or ten months of the year. ‘We have to push it to make a living.’
The fishermen switch between potting for shellfish, netting, inshore trawling and handlining. The high environmental value of the seabed is protected by a local bye-law limiting scallopers to two dredges per side. By making it uneconomic they are deterred from fishing for scallops in the waters inside a four-mile limit.
Most of the Scillonian vessels work from St Mary’s, the largest inhabited island, while each of the so-called off-islands only supports three or four boats. Occasionally vessels from Cornwall and elsewhere fish in Scillonian waters but are limited by size and tonnage (less than 11 metres long and 10 tonnes) if they are to fish within the six-mile limit managed by the Isles of Scilly Sea Fisheries Committee. The lack of modern landing facilities means that for many of these outsiders it is easier to steam 42 miles back to Newlyn rather than land on St Mary’s. While catches can be landed here, there are no processing facilities for fresh fish and the small harbour’s limited facilities have only recently been upgraded, including installing a chill store and ice making facilities. Any fish sent on to Newlyn from the Scillies usually sells for a lower price and is known as ‘overlanded’ fish. Shellfish is sent to specialist merchants in Cornwall and Devon.
So it is clearly in fishermen’s interests to develop local markets. The most progressive have also recognised that to make a living they have to find ways of earning more from their catch before selling it on to others. For some this means gearing their trade almost entirely to the tourism season, which therefore effectively stops between November and March, often the worst time of the year for bad weather in this exposed archipelago. Bad for business, but good for the fish. So the stocks are well managed by the small size of the fleet and seasonality of fishing effort.
Most of the part-timers have other jobs. When the Scillonian flower industry was at its height many would fish in the summer and pick flowers in the winter months. Now the range of part-time employment varies. One fisherman living on St Martin’s is also the postman, another runs a fish and chip shop every evening, selling the fish he has caught that day. Others, such as Mark Pender (who also fills the role of honorary patrol officer for the Sea Fisheries Committee) and his father and uncle on Bryher, also process their catch. Mark’s father Mike catches crabs and lobsters while his brother Johnny does the processing. Much of their fresh, hand-picked crab goes straight to the Hell Bay Hotel, only a couple of hundred yards away, or to the island’s other cafes. Over on St Martin’s, Mark and his wife Suzanne have set up a mail order business selling shellfish; Toby Tobin–Dougan at the island’s bakery smokes freshly caught grey mullet and Atlantic salmon, while on St Mary’s the Scillonian Shellfish Company sells cooked and dressed crab and lobster and crab pate.
The men who fish these clear, unpolluted waters are convinced that they produce some of the best fish and shellfish in the world. ‘It is outstanding quality because we take such care of the water,’ says Mark Pender.
The Isles of Scilly should be the answer to every foodie’s dream, eating fresh fish and shellfish that have literally been caught a few hours earlier from the sea that is never more than a few yards away. While many of the fishermen and shell fishermen sell direct to the cafes, pubs and hotels, the sad truth is that this small number of boats cannot meet demand at the height of the tourist season, and some catering outlets buy in fresh fish, mostly from mainland Cornwall. For those who know where to find it, however, Scillonian fish and shellfish are hard to beat.