After the devastating Cod Wars and wranglings over quotas, Michael Warner boards Whitby's newest fishing trawler.
You might remember the headline. Just five years ago, a piece in the Daily Telegraph claimed there were just “One hundred cod left in the North Sea”. It was based on a disturbing and apocalyptic report that seemed to justify the beliefs that rampant overfishing had decimated the once-abundant stocks, turning areas of the North Sea into a piscatorial desert.
The fishermen operating from the far-flung Scottish and north-eastern ports knew different. They knew that over the previous 10 years, since the mass decommissioning of fishing vessels and the inception of a scheme called the Cod Recovery Programme, the stocks of North Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) were in fact in resurgence and being fished at sustainable levels not seen in a generation.
It’s a genuine success story. Whilst restrictions and constraints imposed by the EU’s notorious Common Fisheries Policy have often impeded the fishermen’s best efforts to maintain viable businesses, in the background, innovation and responsibility have been pioneered by many and underpinned stock recovery on an unprecedented scale.
For the Whitby-based Locker family, fishermen since chairman Arnold first put to sea back in the 1970s, these media misgivings were of course entirely unfounded. This fiercely proud and proactive family team have been harvesting the productive waters of the North Sea with the determination and will to ensure a viable industry, not just for themselves, but for future generations and the communities in which they live.
Managing director Andrew Locker says that, although still based in Whitby, all the fishing operations are now carried out from Peterhead on the Aberdeenshire coast, the UK’s largest white fish port with landings in excess of 6,000 boxes a day not uncommon.
“Cod is back there with a vengeance,” he enthuses. “As a family company, we’ve been pioneering techniques that not only catch fish more efficiently, but promote ‘juvenile selectivity’ which basically means a mesh size in the net that’s big enough to allow immature fish to escape. We only catch the sizes that we require for our customers.”
Booming cod numbers have also meant environmental recognition for the fishery, with the coveted “blue tick” of the Marine Stewardwardship Council being awarded last summer for the species. It’s worthy recognition that stocks are back on track and able to be fished at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) where the growth (or recruitment) of a population is in excess of the natural and harvested offtake (or mortality).
“Our boats’ hauls are yielding more and more fish and in less time taken,” adds Locker. “The last trip grossed at 21 tonnes of cod, of which 1.5 tonnes were of the largest ‘tail out’ size [fish so big they don’t fit in the boxes] and another 4.5 tonnes comprised the ‘best sprag’ size [where the fish just fit the length of the box].
“This is great news, not just for us, but the whole fishery and it means that our selectivity measures are working. Using the bigger, 128mm, mesh size in our nets means that our ‘discard rate’ [the number of undersized fish rejected as unsuitable for sale] is down below one per cent.”
Increased stocks also mean planning for the future and this enterprising North Yorkshire family has recently taken delivery of a new fishing vessel, the Victory Rose, named after Arnold’s uncle’s first boat. Built locally at the Whitby firm of Parkol Marine, which helped ensure work and investment in the local community, she now fishes in tandem with her sister ship, Our Lass.
This is all very encouraging, not just for the fishermen, but for the consumer. The ability to supply local businesses with fish has always been of great importance and traceability from “port to plate” is the main driver behind the company’s ethos.
So much so in fact, that Whitby’s famous fish and chip mecca the Magpie Cafe, now reopened and refitted after the devastating fire last year, has been one of the Lockers’ most loyal customers over the last decade.
Eighty per cent of the staff elected to tough out the seven and a half month rebuilding programme and Magpie owner Ian Robson, a veteran of this local establishment for some 41 years, is obviously delighted that it is back in business.
“We’ve had such incredible local support,” he says. “Although the whole experience was awful, it’s been a chance to re-invest and come back even stronger than before. The only thing to really survive was the staircase – pretty much everything else has had to be replaced.”
Smiles too from head chef Paul Gildroy, who shows me round the sparkling new kitchens as the Magpie busies itself in preparation for the first servings of the day. He has been here for 30 years and provenance of his ingredients is all-important.
Paul not only buys all the fish and shellfish for the Magpie and its sister takeaway venue next door, but also for the Whitby Catch, a recently acquired wet fishmongers business, which, like the Magpie, is situated on the quay.
“We try and buy as much local product as we can, both for the cafe and the shop,” he says.
“There aren’t the bigger trawlers left in Whitby any more, but there are some great day boats who will land fish like skate, turbot and plaice in season and of course local crab and lobster throughout the summer.”
Landings from nearby Bridlington and Scarborough also find their way into the chiller here and the extensive menu, although unchanged from its previous incarnation, features a diverse and eclectic range of fully traceable seafood.
However, it’s the Lockers’ prime MSC cod that I’m here to sample and having stood on a rather glacial Peterhead fish quay earlier that week, watching the landings, I know full well that these beautifully fresh, green/gold and bespotted specimen fish have recently arrived.
The bustling shout auctions of Peterhead Market still ring in my ears, having witnessed the sale of nearly 4,000 boxes of stiff-fresh white fish, days earlier. Boats landing throughout the day and night by floodlight, under a seagull-circling spectacle of industry, come and go in a continuous cycle of sea-harvest, undertaken by these “last of the wild hunters”.
At last, we’re seated and it’s time to sample the fruits of the labours of the crews of Victory Rose and Our Lass.
It’s mature and sustainable fish caught with pride and passion in one of the most hostile working environments known to man and delivered with the due care and attention that this first-class product deserves.
As my plate of battered cod arrives at its terminus, I can’t help but smile, knowing the many steps that its journey has entailed to reach my table.
Sought out by the skipper, ensnared by the crew’s gear, hauled aboard, gutted, washed, packed in ice and craned to the quay, before being ferried the 340 miles to Whitby and lovingly prepped in kitchens of the Magpie. It's true traceability at its best and being armed with that knowledge makes the taste even finer.
Gloriously white and succulent flakes of cod-loin fall away from the fork as the perfectly crisp and golden batter parts. Mouthful after mouthful of delicious, wild, sea-grown protein to savour and delight in. Simply delicious.
As they say up here on the coast, “a trip to Whitby isn’t complete without a trip to the Magpie”. I can vouch for that. Caught by a local family and then served by one. A simple cycle of sustainability.