Fishing Lines: No reason to drop the monkfish habit

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The Independent Online

Noel Coward once said to me: "I hate namedroppers." But I really did spend a day's fishing, at his invitation, with the president of the National Federation of Sea Anglers. (OK, not quite as impressive as Mr C, but in sea-fishing circles, he was once a pretty big cheese.)

I'm not quite sure why Leslie Norman invited me on his boat. Just me, the skipper and sea angling's top hitter. Maybe I got the call because I worked on a fishing magazine at the time, and he wanted some good publicity. But he became increasingly irascible every time I caught anything, and when the day ended, he fell somewhat short of saying: "Wow! That was a lot of fun! We must do that again sometime soon!"

If anyone had a reason to be grouchy, it was me. I had hooked a very big fish, and as it came to the surface, Norman grabbed a net to lift it aboard. Instead of hoicking out the fish, though, he tangled my line around the handle. The fish surged, and the line broke.

It's a bit hard to say: "You stupid old fool!" when you're a guest. I probably said: "Ah well. That was bad luck," but smouldered dark dreams of turfing him over the gunwales. He never apologised, either.

What makes that incident stick in my mind was that the fish in question was a monkfish of about 30lb. At the time, it would have been the biggest fish I'd ever caught. I'd never hooked a monkfish before, and haven't since. And my chance of doing so is growing increasingly thin, if you believe the supermarket chain Asda.

This week, they banned monkfish from their supermarkets, saying they would stop selling the fish until the industry took "appropriate action" to ensure the species' long-term survival. They demanded that celeb chefs such as Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay join the boycott.

Asda's reaction is curious. Monkfish, or angler fish, were once listed as vulnerable to overfishing by the Marine Conservation Society, it's true. But the society recently removed monkfish from their "not to eat" list, and ministers even agreed before Christmas to increase quotas after the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea's latest statistics.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that Asda's attempt to portray themselves as a jolly green giant had anything to do with finishing top (or bottom) two years ago in a list of supermarkets rated for their fisheries policies. A Greenpeace survey had found that Asda sold more threatened species than any other chain, though to be fair, they were equal fifth last year, tying with Tesco and Morrisons.

Fishermen, especially in the South-west, fear the ban could damage their livelihoods. The UK monkfish market is worth £3.8 million and has grown by more than a third in two years.

Strangely, eating monkfish is a very new thing, delicious though they are. My 1987 British Sea Fishes says: "There is no commercial fishery for angler fish." They are invariably sold with the heads cut off, because they look like Jade Goody with fins.

So maybe Leslie Norman was ahead of his time by practising a novel form of catch and release. Or maybe he just didn't like me.