Fishing Lines: Rock bottom on the menu

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The Independent Online
IF TRAWLERS continue to plunder our cod, bass and mackerel stocks, anglers may soon be forced to buy a reel capable of taking more than a mile of line and fish for shovel-nose shark and orange roughy.

There are more than 80 deepwater species off our coast, some so little-known that they only have Latin names. Anglers reading about the smooth-head, black scabbard and roundnose grenadier could be forgiven for getting excited about large shoals of unusual fish that are greedy, prolific and at least 3ft long. The bad news is that they live in depths between 900 and 2,000 metres, which means a boat trip of about 600 miles to get beyond the continental shelf.

While haddock, hake and herring have been hunted remorselessly, the exotica have been undisturbed except for the occasional scientific expedition. But now trawlers have started to raid the depths to see if exploiting the bottom of the sea is viable, and early results are promising. The news certainly won't please Bird's Eye. Not because the roughy and the grenadier aren't good to eat. In fact, they have firm white flesh which is said to be delicious. New Zealand boats have been catching roughy for a decade. However, I should add that not every species is a gourmet's delight.

Dr Alwyne Wheeler, former head of fishes at the Natural History Museum, in London, has actually tried most of these exotic species and had a quiet chuckle when he heard that trawler owners were getting excited about these undiscovered stocks. The same concentrations of fish were revealed 20 years ago and Dr Wheeler was on hand to identify what was landed.

He does not believe that smooth-head and chips or scabbard fish fingers will become part of the British diet. Even ignoring the fact that some heavy promotion will be needed to convince housewives to eat grenadiers - the fish are more commonly called rat-tails - there may be other obstacles to overcome. Back in the 1970s, when the Ministry of Fisheries decided that subterranean species would solve our fish problems, a dockside conference was organised to welcome the returning trawler, and the catch proudly displayed.

The next day, papers displayed a range of bug-eyed monsters, saying: 'This is what the Government says you're going to be eating.'

As a PR exercise, it was a disaster. Bird's Eye had to spend more than pounds 100,000 to bring fish-finger sales back to their level before the ministry's proud announcement. The idea was quietly dropped and we never had the chance to try grilled rat-tail. Until now.

Enjoy your supper.