They're playing our tuna

Newlyn's fishermen rely on tuna catches to survive. But they fear new clashes with the Spanish fleet as the season begins.
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Those members of the Jones family who were left behind at home in Newlyn, Cornwall, dissolved in tears as they watched the Six O'Clock News. Five hundred miles away in the Atlantic, where he was fishing for tuna, Martin Jones, captain of the Pilot Star, was surrounded by 13 Spanish boats twice the size of his. He was under attack.

Julie Jones admits that, watching the report, she became hysterical. On board his old wooden boat, her husband feared for the lives of his crew of five. In the event they were unhurt, but his nets were irreparably damaged by Spanish fishermen, who hauled them aboard and slashed them. He fled for home.

That was last August, another moment of confrontation in the "tuna wars" that flared when Spanish fishermen contested the right of other fleets to use drift nets in international waters. Yet within a week, Martin Jones and his men aboard the Pilot Star were back in the tuna grounds north of the Azores. A blend of Cornish stubbornness and financial pressure left them no choice.

During the winter, the Pilot Star fishes for hake and monkfish off the Scillies using gill nets, which are anchored to the sea bed. But now drift nets are being fitted, before the boat sets off again in the next fortnight for the short tuna season. It is drift nets that enrage the Spanish, who say they damage fish and trap protected species.

Mrs Jones, 40, and their children, Hayley, 14, and Darren, 9, wish that he could stay in the grounds off the Scillies. Yet without the six lucrative tuna trips that the Pilot Star and 11 other boats - the total British tuna fishing fleet - can squeeze in by early September, the sums wouldn't add up. Ever-dwindling EU quotas for traditional hake and monkfish, allocated by the producers' organisation, have forced them to search for new, unrestricted catches to conserve other tonnage for the rest of the year.

This is only the fourth year that British boats have fished for tuna. When prices are strong, pounds 9 or pounds 10 a stone, an average catch can earn up to pounds 25,000. Members of the crew, who split a proportion of the earnings, may get more than pounds 1,500 for two weeks' work, compared with as little as pounds 200 from the hake fishing. "That's a third of a year's money in just over two months," said Joslin Basher, of the Wendy Pulfrey, which will be the first boat to set off on Monday.

Cash is the lure for the skipper-owners, but there are many risks. Not least the distance that the relatively small Newlyn boats have to travel into the Atlantic. The danger posed by the Spanish is the extra burden that has tipped the balance against tuna fishing for many skippers. Mike Townsend, of the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation, believes that as many as 40 boats would now be gearing up but for last year's clashes.

The experience of the 50ft Pilot Star last August was a salutary lesson. Initially, when the Spanish boats approached, Mr Jones thought they were merely checking the length of his nets, which are limited to 2.5km by EU regulations.

"We didn't bother," he says. "But one of them picked up one end and was hauling the gear. I didn't believe the lads at first. Then I saw the floats going in over the side, bom, bom, bom. They were slashing the net with knives. There were other Spanish near us and they wouldn't let us haul. They were going daft. One guy was running up and down the deck with an axe. My lads were getting worried and I tried to calm them, saying, 'He's only indicating he's going to cut our nets, not our bloody heads off.' But I was concerned."

More worrying was the steel-hulled, 100ft-long boat bearing down on his stern. "I thought he was going to ram us. If he'd done that, we'd have sunk. We feared for our lives."

Fishermen hope that tensions have eased, but recent clashes bode ill. Two weeks ago, the Golden Bells II, a Newlyn boat, was fishing for hake in British territorial waters when a Spanish trawler steamed through its nets.

Superintendent Len Scott of Newlyn's mission to deep-sea fishermen, a non-denominational counsellor to the fishing community, is uneasy about the coming weeks. "As the mission man, I'm the one who has to knock on the door of some woman in the wee hours to say her man's not coming back. I fear someone's going to lose their life. The situation in the last few months has only inflamed the situation."

In the neat living-room of their pebble-dashed bungalow, above the higgledy- piggledy streets of stone cottages, Martin Jones tries to calm his wife's apprehension. He tells her about the protection that has been promised - two fisheries vessels and a Navy frigate - in addition to the EU ship that will patrol the fishing waters. She seems unconvinced. "Fishing's already dangerous enough without the Spanish," she says.

As the one who balances the books and does the paperwork, however, she is keenly aware that the last three hake trips have been "pathetic". Then there was the pounds 25,000 it cost to replace the net, which was not insured. "All you're doing is hoiking it over the side and allowing it to drift around all night, you can't insure that." To add to their financial woes, the engine and gearbox of the 35-year-old boat, one of the oldest in the fleet, needs pounds 7,000-worth of repairs.

All of these pressures left Martin Jones little choice but to go for tuna, despite its heavy toll. "He got gastroenteritis after that trouble last year," his wife says. "I called the doctor twice in three hours. I'd never seen him like that before, I thought he was going to die. It was all the stress. He's had it three times this year." And a gradually worsening medical condition that causes two fingers of his right hand to close up goes untreated because he can't take the time off. "At sea we often do 36 hours straight if there are fish around," says Mr Jones. "This is a young man's game, and I'm not young any more. I'm going grey in this business."

The Joneses are not alone in the pressures they face. Supt Scott faces more and more cases of distress and hardship. "We dealt recently with suicide. A man blew his brains out. Marriages are breaking up." An owner whose boat was repossessed lost his home as a result: the mission paid the first three months' rent for new accommodation. "These boats are mortgaged to the hilt," says Supt Scott. "If you lose it, you lose your livelihood. It's your lover, your mistress, your best friend."

He believes the situation may get worse before it gets better. "It is like a pressure cooker about to explode. There is so much pent-up frustration. My fear is that someone's going to do something stupid, either one of the Spanish or one of ours, because of all the pressures. When you back a man into a corner, you give him no way out."

But as Martin Jones and his crew ready the Pilot Star for sea, chipping away the flakes on the rust-streaked superstructure, he manages a note of optimism. "I think fishing goes in cycles," he says. "We used to fish pilchards, then mackerel, then hake. Maybe tuna is the next big fishery."

one's going to do something stupid, either one of the Spanish or one of ours, because of all the pressures. When you back a man into a corner, you give him no way out."

But as Martin Jones and his crew ready the Pilot Star for sea, chipping away the flakes on the rust-streaked superstructure, he manages a note of optimism. "I think fishing goes in cycles," he says. "We used to fish pilchards, then mackerel, then hake. Maybe tuna is the next big fishery."

As the tuna boats get ready to leave the north-western Spanish village of Burela, the anxieties of fishermen and their families are palpable.

Most of Spain's tuna catch is unloaded in Burela, and as the fishermen prepare their boats for their first tuna run of the year, it is clear that they fear a repeat of last year's clashes with fleets from other EU countries, principally France but also Britain.

"The main problem is the drift nets," explains Amador Pita, 44, captain and owner of Sirin II, as he supervises the loading of supplies before setting out - plastic bags of meat, crates of fish, lettuce, padded jackets, a couple of barrels of wine. "We call them the curtains of death. The fish are dead and bruised before they're hauled aboard so they're fit only for canning, and the nets catch not only tuna but protected species like dolphins."

The Spanish fishermen, unlike other EU members, catch tuna with baited hooks and lines. Sirin II has two 20-metre poles stowed along its length that swing out to sea and trail behind them five lines each, reeled in on pulleys mounted on the deck. The fish, caught live, are stacked carefully with crushed ice in the hold, never more than two deep before the planks of wood are laid across to prevent them pressing each other.

Last year's casus belli was the alleged use by the French of nets longer than the EU limit of 2.5km, but Amador Pita and all Burela fishermen oppose the use of nets altogether. "They are a navigation hazard, they catch our propellors. They could cause deaths. Last year, the French tried to board my boat twice. I was able to slip away but I had to radio the Spanish warship that was accompanying us."

The women of Burela say that at the opening of every tuna season they feel a pang of sadness. "You'd think after 20 years I'd be used to it," says Susana Pita, "but I still feel it when he goes, and the next few days it's worse, when I have to get used to being alone. Last year it was terrible. We lived the war from the land, imagining all sorts of things. It's a hard life for the men, but it's harder for us, the wives. We have to be mother and father to our children. When there are storms we fear the worst."

During the season, from early June to late October, Amador and his crew of 11 are away for two to three weeks at a time. On average, they can expect to catch about 300 fish a day, each weighing about 5kg, so after a 15-day outing a boat can bring back up to 5,000 fish. They unload their catch in Burela and rest for two days before heading off again for another stint. In winter they fish north of Madeira for swordfish.

For the first time, Amador will be joined in July by his son Ruben, 17, who is studying navigation in Gijon, Asturias. But this, too, is a cause for worry. "Ruben loves the sea so we let him study it, even though we don't know if he'll find work or have a future."

The Pitas' daughter, Alexandra, 18, is at home waiting to hear if she has won a place at Coruna university. "We're a very close-knit society in Galicia," she says. "The women don't go anywhere without their husbands. We never take holidays. We stay at home with our family in case anything should happen." In his office by the harbourside next to the ice-making plant, the fishing master, Jose Roca, checks off each departing vessel in a neat, old-fashioned hand. Forty-five were leaving Burela over two days, and more than 400 were setting out along the Cantabrian coast; all of them will put in to Burela with their catch, 82 per cent of which is sold for fresh consumption.

"Last year was very painful," Mr Roca said. "We see tuna as a continuity, for all our life, and if we keep using traditional methods we can go on year after year. But with the nets we'll destroy everything and the port will just die. That's our fear." Burela prospered for 20 years until 1985, the year Spain joined the EU and France started using nets. Now, Mr Roca says, the fishermen just want to keep going, without even the hope that things will improve.

Delivery vans pulled up along the harbourside, where boats were moored three or four deep. Crew members skipped from deck to deck putting last- minute dabs of paint, stowing cans of beer, gas canisters, cigarettes, bottles of water for those without purification machines.

"The French lay the nets in the evening and pick them up at midday," says Amador, as he guides a flexible chute of ice into the bowels of his boat, "so that leaves us Spaniards only a few hours in the afternoon to navigate and fish. We don't fish at night. And where the nets have been, the fish are traumatised, they go crazy and won't touch the bait."

Wouldn't it be better if the Spaniards adopted nets, like other EU members, which ministers in Madrid say they are considering? Amador, mild and even- tempered, flushes with anger. "They don't know what they are talking about," he snaps. "There's not enough room as it is, we can't navigate. It's a permanent traffic jam. If we all go for nets, we'll exterminate the stocks in two or three years and we'll all be out of work."

The harbour thinned out as the boats drew away one by one without fanfare. Sirin II was among the last to leave. As she headed for the Azores, her two poles lifted out sideways and dipped, as if in salute, and in Burela's little bay the empty water slapped against the empty quay.