Lowly whelk is full of eastern promise for Welsh fishermen

Shellfish is providing a lifeline to a fishing port facing hard times. Michael Prestage reports
Click to follow
Tourists wandering along the seafront at New Quay in Dyfed might have been more interested in fish and chips or ice-cream than the 10p a time whelks on sale at a wet fish stall, but the unfashionable shellfish is providing an economic lifeline to the town's fishermen.

Once the lowly whelk was ignored by visitors and the fishermen alike. That was in the days when the seas off west Wales were bountiful and lobsters, crabs, prawns, mackerel and herring provided a more lucrative haul.

Now times are hard. The fishermen are looking to diversify and a market for whelks has been developed in Japan and Korea. At pounds 12 a tray, the price does not seem high, but there are rumours of local fishing boats daily landing tons of the shellfish.

Finding the truth is harder to establish. The local processor who boils and vacuum packs the whelks before shipping them to the Far East is reluctant to be named or comment. A spokes- man said: "We don't want to say too much because we don't want everybody flooding to this coast and setting up whelk businesses."

Fishermen on the quay relate the tale of a scallop bed discovered in the early 1980s. At first the locals had the lucrative harvest to themselves, but the supplier of the specialist equipment needed quickly discovered the truth. Soon there were 80 boats travelling to the area and the bed was stripped bear.

Winston Evans, 55, remembers the good times when he started out in the industry but realises they have gone forever. Like most others, he will now catch anything there is a market for. And he, for one, admits he is after whelks. Mr Evans and his crewman Carl Thould know of others in New Quay and fishing boats in neighbouring ports who are also chasing the shellfish.

He has 250 of the plastic containers with holes drilled in the side that are baited with dog-fish to catch whelks. A line of pots is left down for up to 48 hours before being winched to the surface. On board the Catherine Arden the trays of whelks take their place with tanks full of lobster and crab.

There is no quota on whelks and they are in abundant supply. No one is sure just how many boats are fishing for them and the tonnage being brought ashore.

Mr Evans said: "The Japanese seem to like them, but not me. I think they are too tough. I have no idea how much they charge for them in the Far East and given what we get paid I don't want to know. I'm not sure how much others are making, but I'm certainly not earning a fortune from them."