I first met David Dobson a few years ago, at the CSFC's headquarters on the quay at Whitehaven. Sitting in his office, wearing his uniform of navy serge trousers and a short-sleeved white shirt with ‘Cumbria Sea Fisheries Committee’ in gold on the navy epaulettes, and surrounded by photos and charts and books, he looked completely happy and at ease in his role as Master and Chief Fisheries Officer. In his warm Preston accent, he told me that he comes from a fishing family and, after a spell as a chef (I tried to imagine him in apron and tall white hat, but failed), he went on the trawlers and soon had his own boat working out of Fleetwood. He used to fish the Solway, and liked Whitehaven so much that when he was offered the job in 1989 as Master of the fisheries’ vessel, the Solway Protector, he moved to Cumbria, and has been with the Committee ever since.
‘I never thought that I’d have to learn about mussels and cockles and brown shrimps and get into environmental work, when I took it on,’ he said, but he’s now a mine of information – indeed, almost unstoppable in his enthusiasm and readiness to talk about the sea, fish, and his job.
Did you know, for example, that the North Irish Sea, which includes the Solway, is probably the most mixed fishery around Britain? There are scallops, ‘queenies’ (the smaller queen scallops), prawns (also known as Norway lobster, Nephrops), shrimps (Crangon), haddock, whiting, hake, plaice, sole, brill, turbot, skate ... And of course it’s not just the Cumbrian boats that fish here, but trawlers come from Ireland and elsewhere.
At that time of my first meeting with David, the CSFC was one of 12 committees that ‘policed’ the fisheries around the coast of England and Wales - in the case of the Cumbrian committee, that meant overseeing 96 miles of the Solway’s Cumbrian coast, down as far as the Duddon estuary.
But all this is about to change. From next Spring, April 2011, some of the SFCs will merge to form Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs), under the control of DEFRA. The new North-western IFCA will stretch from the River Dee on the Welsh / English border right up to the top of the Solway Firth. This new North-western IFCA will thus have to deal with 8 different funding authorities such as Lancashire and Cumbria, and there will be two offices, at Whitehaven and at Carnforth.
This is a major re-organisation, and when we meet again in September 2010, David tells me that since October last year a 'shadow IFCA committee' has been working alongside the SFCs "to try to make a seamless change-over." He's very much in favour of the change: "It's a move that I advocated years ago, even back when I was still fishing. It makes much more sense to unify the bye-laws."
David - who will be 65 years old the day before the IFCA comes into being - will probably stay on for 12 months or so, as Director of Operations, to oversee the changes. Cath, who runs the office ("Cath the Kingpin" as David calls her) will also remain, as Senior Finance and Operational Support Officer. "We've got 45 years' experience between us - plus my own 20 years experience in the fishing industry before that," David says proudly.
Cath Dobson's grand new title is deserved, because she seems to do everything. Whenever I have visited the office, it has been busy with people dropping in for advice and to offer their opinions, and she calmly sorts out all the problems of form-filling, typing letters, acting as intermediary for the trawlermen’s Statutory Basic Training; she has also frequently helped out on the boat or on the shore (even on the annual mussel surveys) when necessary. It was Cath that chose the toilet seat in the ladies’ loo: completely appropriate, one of those see-through plastic ones with queenies and other shells embedded in it. I like the fact that the seat she chose for the Men's loo has spiders in it.
I like the CSFC's office, too; it’s a friendly, busy place, the walls covered in photos, posters, charts and newspaper cuttings, and you have only to step out of the front door to see the Solway Protector, moored at one of the pontoons, smart and efficient-looking with her grey hull.
Whitehaven harbour now has a flourishing marina, where large yachts and cruisers are moored gunwhale to gunwhale along the pontoons. David and I walk around the quay to look at the North Harbour, which is where the fishing boats tie up. In common with the rest of the harbour, it too has been modernised.
"Did you know that Whitehaven is now the premier landing-port on the west coast?" David says. "And it's now the only place with constant ice-making facilities." There is the tall boxy ice-plant with its long hose that delivers crushed ice into the trawlers’ holds; there's a computerised fuel depot; and of course there is also the vast – and because the tide is low and the boats still at sea – empty fish mart. When the boats return, the fish will be brought in and weighed, sorted, and stored in the walk-in chiller units. There are areas for washing and storing fish-boxes (one corner of the still-wet floor is piled with plastic boxes, yellow, red and blue, labelled ‘Kilkeel’, ‘Denholm’, ‘Clogherhead Fisheries Co-op’, ‘Zeebruggen’); upstairs there are offices for the agents who buy the fish for clients, and for DEFRA staff; there are showers and kitchens, and huge metal sliding doors that open onto the yard where the lorries come to collect the fish and take it to auction marts and distributors. As we look around, a lad dressed in combats who has been fishing from the quay with a rod, rushes in with a half-metre eel on his line; he dangles it on the floor, where it wriggles and squirms, like one of those furry caterpillar toys on a string that street-sellers hawk. Apparently the eel has swallowed his hook – so he takes a knife and cuts its head off. No room for sentiment there!
I ask David how the fishing industry in the Irish Sea and Solway Firth is doing now, in 2010. In terms of the number of boats fishing, he tells me, the picture is one of decline. After three rounds of government decommissioning of boats, the fishing fleet has halved in the last 15 years. "People have taken their money and got out. Fleetwood [down the coast towards Liverpool] is almost finished, there are only 3 or 4 boats there now. There were more than 80 in 1983-84." As for the fish themselves, some species such as thornback rays and skate are on the increase. "Skate are probably at the highest level I can remember - I put it down to there being such a decrease in the numbers of fishing vessels. The plaice stocks are healthy, too, but there's no market for them any more, they are mainly used as lobster-pot bait - two of the main Dutch buyers went bankrupt last year."
The stock of 'prawns', Nephrops, has been increasing: "This is the best year the local fishing industry has had for catching. The fishermen have had the biggest smiles on their faces for a long time!"
Species in decline throughout the Irish Sea, unlike the North Sea, are cod and whiting, and "It looks to be more to do with the changing climate because cod won't breed if the temperature is too high. And the ambient temperature has definitely gone up, although I can't quote you a figure." (A friend of mine who is a former zoologist and runs a sail-training business off the Scottish West Coast, has been recording sea temperatures for several years - and his figures also show a rise.)
The past decade or so has seen an increase in protection of the sea-bed around our coasts, through Marine Conservation Zones, Marine Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation. David is a member of a stake-holder group that deals with conservation areas in Liverpool Bay and off Blackpool, for example. "I'm supportive of the process but keen that they aren't in areas where they'd impede the fishing industry - that's why I'm part of the group, to speak up for the industry." But 'sea fisheries committees' are about to change their spots, to become the 'fisheries and conservation authorities', and the North-west IFCA's role will bring many more duties and responsibilities, which will require a bigger boat. "We need a boat that can do extended patrols, especially with respect to the MCZs and protected areas. It will have to be away for 4-5 days at a time." The IFCA is in the early planning stages for a new boat which will be twice the size of the Solway Protector, about 25 metres long, and which will have accommodation for 8 people (including 4 crew) and wet- and dry-labs. "It'll be a dual-purpose boat," David tells me, "both a patrol boat and an environmental survey vessel."
As for the Solway Protector, she is now 21 years old, in good shape and well-maintained - but sadly, she is too small. I went out on a patrol in her in 2003. Luckily, the wind was only Force 3 but it was immediately obvious what the phrase ‘short seas’ meant: because the Solway is so shallow and confined, the sea has no room to build up waves that have a long period between them, and this makes for a bumpy ride.
Erik Thinnesen, who was then CSFC’s Relief Master (and is now Fisheries Officer -- see the chapter on the Mussel Beds), skippered the patrol boat; Alan Forster was Senior Fisheries Officer, (the late) Norman Craine was the Engineer and, of course, there was David. The Protector's wheelhouse is fitted with 3 comfortable swivel chairs, which also have pneumatic cushions underneath, like a concertina; Alan's chair was not very musical. There is a chart table with a chart marked in red and green to show the three- and six-mile fishing-limits off the coast; a GPS system, two radars, various radios, an autopilot, a TV with several videos stashed beneath it, books, diaries, binoculars... We sat in the sea-lock of the marina, waiting as the water-level dropped nearly three metres, and then the great curved gates opened to let us out. The outer harbour was still calm, but as we passed its outer wall and Erik accelerated away, the bow rose up, the engines growled, and we ploughed noisily into the waves, which became more and more confused as we rounded St Bees’ Head. Spray crashed against the windscreens to be wiped away at once by the wipers. At 15 knots we left a wide trail of churned green water, and I had to hang on tightly as the boat crashed into the waves. Just to show how fast the Protector could go, Erik took her up to just over 18 knots and the crashing smoothed off, but it was necessary to watch closely for large waves and he had to cut the throttle. He and Alan have tattooes on their tanned arms and they are both humorous and friendly; it’s obvious from their conversation that they all work well as a team, with each other and with the local fishermen.
We passed a raft of shearwaters, which took off and skimmed swiftly across the white wave-tops; a gannet beat slowly overhead. About nine miles out we slowed down in parallel with a rusty Irish double trawler, which had its two nets out and was motoring slowly North-West in a straight line; the CSFC officers waved and the skipper waved back. The black jagged bulk of the Isle of Man was wiped out by a white curtain of rain, but the complex shapes of Sellafield briefly caught the sun. Alan was talking on the radio to a Whitehaven boat that was approaching us, the skipper grumbling about "five baskets of bulk". Erik grinned at me and covered the speaker as the skipper swore; nothing but "junk, garbage, starfish and a few prawns, hardly covers the diesel."
The weather was starting to deteriorate and few boats were out, so we turned and ran back along the coast, the waves behind us. In comparison to the outward journey, the movement was so smooth that I decided to return to the wheelhouse and jot down some notes. That was a mistake! I recognised that sweaty, stomach-churning feeling from my sailing days, so I hurried back on deck to concentrate on the view. The dark red cliffs of St Bees’ were splashed with white guano from the nesting guillemots and fulmars, and the Fells were dark, the top of Skiddaw hidden. "In all the 30-odd years I’ve been going up and down this coast, I’ve never seen the hills look the same. They’re always changing, there’s always different light," David said, and even in the four hours that we were at sea, their outlines and contours were as pliable as sandcastles washed by the sea.
Fish stocks and the focus of the fishing industry are always changing too, and management of the Solway Firth's demersal and shell-fisheries has to adapt to fit the needs of the times. Sometimes the adaptation is slow, partly because the Firth is a complicated area of water which is 'owned' by two countries. "We've got this invisible line down the middle, with totally different management each side," David Dobson tells me, "and I've been constantly pushing to get the Solway treated as a whole, for everything, not just fisheries." The Solway Firth Partnership was set up to address this and other problems and is a vital meeting-point for the wide diversity of needs and ideas each side of the Firth.
The CSFC too seems to be an adaptable organisation, as its 8 staff are capable of turning their hands to any of the tasks, from going out on patrol to maintenance to shore survey work. "We have a policy of flexibility, that's why we're as effective and efficient as we are, because it's accepted that we have to be as flexible as we can."
A version of this article appeared in Cumbria Life in 2003. This version is the copyright of Ann Lingard, December 2010
The Historic Seascape Characterisation project has a wealth of information about fisheries and seascape of the Irish Sea.