Fishing Is One of the Most Deadly Jobs in the UK

In the UK, dozens of fishermen die each year to land the fish we eat. The work remains the most dangerous peacetime occupation in the country. Yet the very real hazards of fishing are scarcely reported.

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Dec 1 2014, 10:30pm

Photo by the author.

It's early November in Newlyn, Cornwall. A light chill sweeps across one of the most historic fishing ports in the United Kingdom. Its small, winding streets stretch high above Mount's Bay; centred on the town's fish market, which remains the country's fifth largest in terms of fish landed.

Fishermen have sipped their beer, prepared their ice, and set sail here for centuries. On the promenade, where the town meets its larger sister, Penzance, a statue stands tall; a burly, oiled-up man casting a rope towards the waves. It's a moving and gentle reminder of the sacrifices many have made.

It'd be hard to go into one of Newlyn's fishing pubs and meet someone who hasn't been beset by seafaring tragedy. In the maritime world, a community as tightly bound as the nets it relies upon, everybody has a story.

Photo courtesy of Salt of the Earth.

Barry Ead and Don Liddicoat. Photo courtesy of Salt of the Earth.

The Fishermen's Mission is the only charity to support those in the industry who've encountered the hardships it so readily inflicts. I visited its Newlyn centre during a book launch. The project, called Salt of the Earth, captures the faces of people who live and work in the port alongside anecdotes about naughty lobsters, or tales of bunking off school to nab a few mackerel.

There's also a harrowing grief painted onto many of the book's pages. In the first portrait, we see Don Liddicoat. Below his photograph, he notes a powerful sentiment: his brother, Paul, was claimed by the sea aged just 16. "His body was never found," mentions Liddicoat, "so sadly we were unable to lay him to rest."

In the past 10 years, a total of 94 of the UK's approximately 12,000 commercial fisherman have died at sea across the UK.

Paul is one of more than 90 to have died sailing from Cornish coasts in the last century. In the Annual Blessing of the Fleet, a memorial service dedicated to the losses, their names are read out at the quayside. Conservative MP Sheryll Murray, whose husband Neil died in a fishing accident in 2011, has attended in the past. For many year's she's campaigned to improve safety on the UK's vessels.

Neil Murray joins scores of others. In 2013, the nationwide death rate for fishermen in the UK was 32.9 per 100,000, according to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; in 2009, the rate climbed to a staggering 106. Agriculture, another hard line of work that brings us our bounties, saw only eight deaths per 100,000 workers in the same period.

And Seafish, an organisation committed to minimising risk while out in the open ocean, reports that in the past 10 years, a total of 94 of the UK's approximately 12,000 commercial fisherman have died at sea across the UK; 529 fishermen have suffered serious injury; and 210 fishing vessels have been lost.

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Newlyn Harbour. Photo by the author.

Last month marked the latest disaster to envelope the sector. A 45-year-old captain was killed as he fished about 100 miles east off a Scottish island.

Scotland's Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead said it would be "felt by all fishing communities and is a horrible reminder of the dangers our fishermen face, day in day out, to bring fish to our tables". But past the local newspapers and BBC coverage, few will learn of the price he paid he paid for our supper.

Those in the town will, though. Fishing villages are often small. In west Cornwall, a handful of names—Madron, Tonkin, Stevenson, to name just a few—speckle the sides of boats and fishmongers more prevalently than McDonald's.

"You know, this is what I do – it's just the nature of things. What else would I fucking do?"

Jonathan Madron, known to most as "Guns", has been fishing since he was a boy. "Course it's dangerous," he says. "It's fucking dangerous. And a lot of the time we don't really hear about things. Boats go down. I've been lucky, but we've lost men here."

"Once, on a 50-foot boat, we lost two in the wheelhouse. They were pulled out by the suction while they were asleep."

Guns is nonchalant and unwavering: "You know, this is what I do—it's just the nature of things. What else would I fucking do?" But he expresses dismay at the community as a whole, so far from Westminster, being too readily ignored. It's true to say that when fish fingers in Milton Keynes are dipped in ketchup, there's little regard to how they got there. Yet you might argue that dozens of deaths in a year in one peacetime profession should be as effectual as if a local primary school were to lose its entire teaching staff.

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Bill Johnson.

Bill Johnson is another fisherman from west Cornwall. His weathered face paints a picture of salty seas. Beside a furrowed brow, two large sideburns mark his profession.

Although safety in the industry is "improving", Bill says there's a new addition to the "strains of fishing". EU and government quotas are forcing fishermen to venture to more distant waters, risking more to land a decent catch. Within their set parameters, he explains, only a stipulated amount of fish can be caught.

Even when hauling in great baskets of monkfish, an expensive luxury in supermarkets, fishermen do well to earn just £12,000 (about $19,000) a year.

"Fishermen now have to go out farther," says Bill. "We've been fishing all our lives so we're not going to stop. We catch food. It's what we do, you know."

"The quotas are causing fishermen to take do things they don't normally do. There's plaice, Dover sole, skate all here in our box [local seas], but the quota's full. So everyone's going out to get turbot and brill."

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Butts' pirate-themed scooter.

A short walk with Bill along the harbour's edge, I meet "Butts", a retired fisherman who now spends his days riding around on a pirate-themed mobility scooter. "I lost my leg. It took a while – I fell down years ago while fishing off the Lizard," he recalled. "I've seen a lot in my time. You should try being on a boat in a winter storm."

No fisherman I speak to is at all bothered about recognition. All of them proclaim their love for the profession, how it's "in our blood"; but they also crave an improved "understanding" about the perils of the industry, and the difficulties they and the 12,000 commercial fishermen in the UK face. Nearly all of them also stress their dismay at "the bloody quota", I might add—and salute the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, the charity with tireless crews dedicated to saving lives at sea.

It's not just about the dangers, though. Remarkably, fishermen put a lot on the line for very little reward. In this part of Cornwall, and wider still, fishing families are still feeling the strain of recent storms. With no pension, no insurance in death, and no money to earn if the seas are too brutal a force, many are left without. Even when hauling in great baskets of monkfish, an expensive luxury in supermarkets, or Dover sole, a fish many would pay amply for in even an average restaurant, fishermen do well to earn just £12,000 (about $19,000) a year.

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A fish shop in Newlyn.

Julian Waring, Centre Manager of Newlyn's Fishermen's Mission, feels the men trawling for our feed are often undervalued.

"There are lots of widows we look after here in Newlyn, or families that need support. If fishermen can't fish, they can't earn. It's a very proud profession," he tells me.

"We've got guys who've lost arms, legs, feet. They can't work anymore. There aren't any jobs for these people—all they've done is fished since 15 or 16. It's true, people don't think about it much. We think, Yes, I'll have a bit of fish. It's important, I think, to remember how it got there. It wasn't easy."

The fishermen of Newlyn and the UK are hunter-gatherers; resilient folk who've walked harbour walls and crossed churning seas for hundreds of years.

Today, food appreciation is growing: a better understanding of sustainability and the trade of producers; localism and environmental challenges; which "E numbers" mean what.

But fishermen don't have farmer's markets and shop fronts. They have boats on the horizon. And the next time we sit down to a pan-fried halibut, covered in steaming cockles, dripping in butter and speckled with big, crunchy grains of sea salt, it'd be fitting to remember its true price.

Josh Barrie travelled to Cornwall with First Great Western and stayed at the Dolphin Tavern, Penzance.