Alan Stevens Fishing Facts Fishing Tips Sea

Friend Or Foe – investigating seal and inshore trawler impacts on fish stocks

harbour seal

It’s funny what you remember from school. Even stranger at times is what from that you learn, what you chose to actually use in life. Probably the most important thing I learned from school was down to my RE teacher, Mr Marshall. He was weird to say the least. Resembling the John Pertwee version of Catweazle, Mr Marshall would walk on the desks whilst essays were being completed, treading painfully on fingers of those who were not giving the answers their full attention. But he was funny too, he had an imaginary wife in his top drawer that at regular intervals, to gain our attention, he would berate and threaten with his trusty wooden rule. Get the picture. No wonder OFSTED can along…


He didn’t even teach us anything abut religion, not even remotely. But what he did teach me has been the bedrock of my work as a post conflict negotiator in some of the toughest places on earth. He taught me two basic models that have stuck in my mind forever. Before you do anything important you should..

  1. CAF – Consider all factors; and 
  2. OPV – Other points of view

These two simple processes worked through frame arguments and scenarios on fact not emotion, and help you see life through the eyes of others. You might not like it or agree, but these two basic methods have, quite literally, kept me alive.

So why mention this now? Simply, of late I have heard so many comments in our various chat groups about causes for poor catches, most commonly blamed on trawlers and seals. I thought that it would be useful to investigate this a little to get to the data behind these emotive rogues in the eyes of the sea angler., so here goes.

So let’s look first at the seal issue. Don’t we just love it when one hangs around a charter boat or pier head. And how many are there these days! Millions of them. As a kid fishing on the River Crouch you may have seen a dozen or so basking on the Foulness sandbanks. Now there are what seems thousands that line the sandbanks from the river mouth all the way to the end of the Foulness Sands. But just how does this impact our hobby? I took time out to research via UK fisheries agency and what I found was rather surprising. I was astounded by how much fish a seal can eat in a sitting. 12-13lb of fish in one go. Greedy or what! Headline figures that would confirm our annoyance indeed. OK this is tempered by the fact that they don’t eat every day but still…no wonder I blanked a few weeks back. 

But hang on a minute as I looked further, digging in to the data more I found that the seal population numbers directly correlate to fish stocks – basically aligning to the seal population consuming around 5% of available fish. This makes sense when you think about it – when food is abundant they breed, when food is scarce then the young don’t get fed and seal numbers decline. Obvious really. Now to add to this, scientists can identify from seal poo (can you imagine being asked what you do for a living and telling someone you dissect seal excrement) what type of fish they are feeding on. The data shows that their main prey is, in autumn and winter whiting, pouting and goby’s. Deep joy really given anglers hate catching them anyway. As the seasons move into spring and summer however, the seals favour a diet of sandeels, dragonets and dover sole. Shame about the sole but hey, if the seals are feeding on them surely that means they are here and all I have to do is work out how to catch them better right. Given the 5% consumed rule, this leaves 95% of fish stocks not predated by seals FACT. Seal numbers have increased because overall fish numbers have risen in recent years, meaning more for us, yay! Just happens that the rise is in whiting, something we all know about right and could perhaps be grateful to the seals for reducing a tad to let other species have a go.

So if the seals are factually not significant on fish stocks, if anything a population that reflects fish stocks not one that dictates fish stocks then what is it? The trawlers then I hear you scream…it must be right…


Let’s save time here right away. There should, in my opinion,  be no place on earth for the supersize trawlers that scour the seabed for hundreds of tons of fish at a time. Industrial scale commercial fishing is wrong. The reality is that 80% of UK fish and chip shop cod comes from super sized Russian and German trawlers, not from our own waters. if you chose to buy fish from a supermarket or frozen food chain, then most probably, the fish has been caught by these methods. Not for me to make choices for you but to be clear, I never do. It’s wrong in my view and plain dumb, full stop. 

But what about our own inshore waters, where small day boats work along the Essex coast alongside us recreational anglers. I was curious to see the world through their eyes. To get an insight into the world of a trawler man I have been super lucky to have spent time recently on board one of the Blackwater Estuary inshore commercial trawlers. A third generation commercial fishing family and part of a small community of fishermen who’s methods are strictly what is deemed as ‘light trawling’. Given some people here, despite what words will follow here, might excuse vitriol towards these families, I’ll keep names and faces out of it OK.

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Now these guys know our waters back to front. They work them all year round and follow the seasons and the fish as they come and go, supplying local markets, some of the UK’s finest restaurants and more recently supplying the freshest fish imaginable directly to the public of Essex. We departed early morning for an in-shore trawl for dover sole, which are just arriving at our coast. Even on a calm day and inshore, it was clearly obvious that this was hard work and very dangerous. One false move and there is no plan B if dragged overboard or hit by the heavy equipment. My mind wandered to just what it would be like on a rough day. I kept away from the working gear as the first net was set and my shift as galley slave began by boiling the kettle. 

The nets, as my skipper explained over a steaming cuppa, roll over the seabed so as to not damage the grounds. The nets themselves sit on a sacrificial mesh that brushes over the seabed causing the fish to rise and swim into the net itself. The mesh of the net is large, ensuring small fish could escape to grow. 

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Whilst the net did its thing and we moved ahead at 1.5 knots the skipper explained that the community work together to monitor fish stocks, taking what is plentiful but ensuring none of them exceed what they believe the waters can sustain. It appears to me that they are a community of conservationist farmers rather than hunters, thinking about the quality of water, how their methods act like gardeners, maintaining the health of the seabeds rather than destroying them. Interestingly, it seemed the main concern is overfishing of welks, which now back in fashion are being culled at alarming rates on our estuaries by those outside of the local community who are less concerned with longer term consequences.

One critical element of light trawling beyond the large mesh/small net approach is that the trawl time is short and in this case after an hour of trawling it was time to raise the net. The skipper explained by keeping trawls short, the fish are not damaged producing the finest, premium fish for consumption and ensuring that if any fish not desirable for market are caught that they are returned unharmed before the time in net became terminal.

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Pre-trip to be honest I had imagined a bulging net would be the outcome. Sadly not so in this case, with a dozen sole and a couple of thornback rays kept for customers whilst my new job as sorter of shells, weed and the odd small fish that hadn’t escaped the net for return kept me fascinated by just what is down there in the dark waters. I was loving it. Some really strange micro-species that could be the ideal cheat for any species hunt were sent overboard unharmed and whilst the second trawl was underway I cooked breakfast. 

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And so the morning moved to afternoon. Four short trawls later we had half a box of soles and five roker for our efforts. The skipper was not impressed with the outcome but I was over the moon as we headed for home and readied the sole for sale. The skipper gutting ten for every one I managed as he explained the costs and profits in the inshore small boat industry. No wonder so few are moving into the industry when most of the profits sit down further in the supply chain. The crippling costs of maintaining the boat, fuel, nets, insurance etc all eat away at the value of the days catch and I was staggered by what little, at auction, the skipper would get for the haul for this prime condition produce. 

Thankfully, down to the internet enabling direct interaction between the inshore trawlers and consumers who know their fish, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Increasingly, consumers are buying direct from the boats as they land the catch. The produce could not be better quality and at a lower price than the supermarket too. Mersea Seafood and Blackwater Fresh catch are just two of these boat owners who now sell direct. Honestly, why anyone would by elsewhere is beyond me.

Studying the volumes of fish caught by these boats, they clearly offer no threat whatsoever to fish stocks. In fact, quite the opposite as early messengers to the authorities if stocks vary in either way. If there was one message the trawler guys wanted me to take away was that the authorities should be more agile in quotas and work with the inshore local trawler community to build a long term sustainable, healthy fish population. This can be done now we are detached from the Brussels constraints.

So to conclude, are seals the enemy – well no. More seals means more fish are here. We just need to be better at our art. And when we see a trawler next, look where they are working and what they are selling and you couldn’t get a better indication of what species to target and where. I firmly believe that our coastal wildlife and working fishing communities are what makes our part of the world so special. We just have to manage the coexistence by fact not emotion. There is room for us all. Those seals eyes are so cute after all. And if you have to buy fish for dinner, think about where it comes from and please support our local fishing community. They are our closest conservation fellows, not pirates

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