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Rich harvest for Devon fleet as anchovies invade

Warm ocean currents have bought a welcome windfall to a Devon fishing fleet in the form of shoals of valuable anchovies.

Boats from Brixham harbour have been earning 10 times their usual rate for a catch since the fish, usually found in the Mediterranean, appeared off the south coast in September.

The anchovies have been caught by six boats equipped for the usual catch of sprats, which fetch a few hundred pounds a tonne. Anchovies bring in thousands of pounds a tonne and because there are no fishing quotas for anchovies in British waters, the crews can catch an unlimited number. The boats have been landing between 15 and 20 tonnes a trip.

The influx has brought a welcome boost to a fleet cut from 100 boats to 35 in the past 20 years, said Jim Portus, chief executive of the South West Fish Producers' Organisation. Eight beam trawlers have been decommissioned in the past 12 months.

"We've had a good season for anchovies on the northern shore of the English Channel, and it's been something the entire community has benefited from.

"It's not the first time it's happened, but the last time there was any quantity of anchovies was 20 years ago," he said. "The general opinion is that it could be a 10- or 20-year cycle. It's very difficult to analyse."

Mr Portus, a former Royal Navy captain, said it was unclear if the phenomenon was linked to global warming, although warm-water fish such as black bream, red mullet and squid had been moving further north.

The chef and Independent food writer Mark Hix, who visited Brixham recently, said the fleet had landed more than 100 tonnes of anchovies in a week when he arrived. "It may be that the fish chasing them will change too," he said, raising the possibility of other unusual species cropping up in British waters.

Most of the anchovies have been sold to markets in Spain and Portugal, where there is a shortage.

"It's been wonderful for the fishing community, but we don't want to big it up too much about six or seven years ago the Spanish got European Community funding to come to the English Channel to look for anchovies," said Mr Portus. It was an unsuccessful experiment. If they came here now, there would be questions asked."

Anchovies have made recent appearances in more northerly waters. In August 2003, anchovies and tuna left the Bay of Biscay for Scotland and Ireland to escape the exceptionally hot summer, which raised water temperatures five degrees above their usual level off southern Britanny.