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Neville Copperthwaite, Lyme Bay Fisheries and Conservation Reserve   

It was Percy Shelley who asked ‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ That was way back in 1820 but I reckon the fishermen of West Bay will be still pondering on that today, particularly with the January gales to look forward to. But hey-ho, they are a hardy breed and while the public demand fish on their plate, fishermen will go to sea to fetch it in.

One of these fishermen is Aubrey Banfield. Aubrey’s boat, Delta Barbara, can be seen moored alongside the quay in rough weather but any lull in the winter storms and Aubrey will be off to sea to make the most of the opportunity. This is called a ‘weather window’ and there are precious few of them during the winter months.  There is an art to using these windows; the weather forecast must be scrutinised days beforehand. The tides must come into the equation – will it coincide with strong spring tides which will result in bigger waves? – and local knowledge of the sea acquired from years of experience is invaluable and will be added to the mix before Aubrey makes the decision to leave port.

The consequences of getting this wrong can be serious; there are few worse places to be caught at sea in a howling storm than within Lyme Bay. The shoreline of the Bay forms a natural semi-circular net from Beer Head to Portland Bill, West Bay being located betwixt the two. With nowhere for a boat to run in a westerly gale except toward the shore, a fisherman’s predicament can quickly become precarious in worsening conditions.

It was calm on the day I spoke to Aubrey. I caught him just as he was about to shove off, much to his annoyance, and I quizzed him about his plans for the day. He had nets aboard and was going to lay them overnight to fish for skate. Skate is a generic term for Rays. Aubrey might catch Blond Rays or the more common Thornback Rays or perhaps the rarer Undulate Ray. But by the time they reach the fishmongers slab, you will buy them as Skate. Aubrey also uses a rod and line for cod and pollack which are abundant at this time of year.

Normally, crab and lobster pots would also be deployed but 2017 was an unusually bad year for crab so Aubrey has brought his pots ashore. He thinks the abundance of predatory cuttlefish earlier in the year has been the cause of the downturn in crab landings although some scientists believe global warming could be at fault; the warmer local waters driving the crab populations further north into the Irish and North Seas. The jury is still out on that conundrum so Aubrey might try laying his crab pots again in the spring – watch this space!

In order for everyone to get along and make a living, there is an unspoken camaraderie between the fourteen fishermen of West Bay. It is recognised that if everyone fished for the same species, this would become unsustainable. For instance, whilst Aubrey is fishing for Skate, others will be targeting Sole, Plaice or Turbot.

Others fish for shellfish such as John Worswick, who is a scallop diver. You can’t miss his boat; it’s the bright yellow one called Clear Horizon. Unfortunately, January is not a kind month to John. Scallop-diving requires clear water to enable good vision deep down on the seabed and a two day gale can result in a week of poor vision underwater. Needless to say, John’s summer holidays tend to be taken in January, usually somewhere near the Equator!

In the main though, fishermen are a resilient lot who have learnt to bend with the wind. Bad weather brings with it the opportunity to repair boats ashore. This month the harbour quay is full of boats propped-up on chocks, variously being sanded and painted, engines overhauled. The hustle and bustle of summer holidaymakers has been replaced with the sound of drills, hammers and grinders as fishermen prepare their craft for the coming season. The fishing-gear storage racks are full to overflowing with crab pots, lobster pots, whelk pots, cuttlefish traps and nets. All will be renovated and refurbished in readiness for the coming years’ service. Indeed, the clamour of a working harbour such as West Bay is one to be cherished; many harbours are being gentrified, turned into soulless yachting marinas devoid of fishermen. So I say well done West Bay for keeping your identity and for keeping a safe haven for our fishermen.