Catch this

Don’t miss Channel 4’s new series The Catch: it’s a brilliant, thrilling insight into the life of a deep-sea fishermen, the most dangerous job in peacetime, says Mike Warner.

It’s been nine years since the BBC reality biopic Trawlermen introduced us to the daily hardships endured by those who bring seafood to our table. Much has changed since then. Fewer boats, stricter quotas, more selective gear and other sustainable practices are helping depleted stocks to recover. Fishermen’s welfare has improved too: often boats are newer, better and safer, and there’s more training too. But there’s still the harsh and unforgiving sea to contend with, and deep-sea fishing remains the most dangerous job in peacetime – a fact that came through loud and clear in the first episode of Channel 4’s The Catch.

This new eight-part series, which started on Monday, follows deep-sea fishing crews from around the coast as they battle against gale-force winds, 40-foot swells, and endless driving rain in their hunt for fish. It’s a fascinating, and nailbiting, insight into the modern industry and life at sea – and to life for their families at home too, constantly checking the weather and praying for a safe return. Some are parenting single-handedly, coping with the threat of bankruptcy, organising weddings or giving birth.

With a shortage of young men from traditional fishing communities wanting to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, recruiters are having to look further and further afield. Despite plenty of bad news stories, there are rumours of big pay cheques to be had, attracting young people with no background in fishing to England’s busiest ports. The series follows these rookies as they join the tight-knit crews on board.

The first episode introduced us to skipper Phil Mitchell and his crew – Stan, Stevie, Sean, Bricktop, Simon and Louis, a 21-year-old new recruit fresh from signing on – aboard the Newlyn gill-netter Govenek of Ladram on a nine-day trip west of the Scillies. It showed just how close and family-like a crew can become – and the consequences for all of them if a mistake is made. It’s an intense, claustrophobic atmosphere, switching quickly from extreme ribaldry to fierce professionalism, with huge mood swings too as the pressure, conditions and lack of sleep take their toll.

Phil is a taut, even militaristic skipper, but it’s hard not to sympathise with the kind of pressure he’s routinely under. Having started the trip in relatively quiet Channel waters, in fair weather, a lack of fish means that he’s faced with a tough decision that has both physical and financial implications for all those aboard.

On a fishing boat there are no set wages: the crew earn a percentage of the profits, so if the haul is bad, the fish prices drop or a storm sets in, everyone’s out of pocket. Having studied the latest weather reports and sat-phoned ahead to determine market prices, Phil has to take a gamble. Despite a rapidly deteriorating forecast and a nearly 200-mile steam ahead of them, he heads for the Atlantic Shelf west of the Celtic Sea and the chance of better hauls.

As the weather worsens and the Govenek takes a pounding, Louis is lashed unceremoniously to a locker in a bid to reduce the chance of him being “washed out through the scuppers”. Fish sluice across decks, boxes crash, and chains swing lethally amid the diesel fumes. It’s tense, riveting stuff – and clearly really struck a chord in the industry, as a fleet of skippers, crew, chefs and merchants and fish lovers swamped Twitter with respect both for the fishermen and for the programme’s director James Incledon.

There’s a happy ending too. When the crew finally haul their gear, the mood changes again to euphoria as prime turbot come aboard. Heading home with a full fish room, Phil’s gamble has paid off – it needed to: those extra miles steamed cost £7000 in fuel – but he still has decisions to make. To make sure his catch makes a good price, he has to make sure he lands not only at the right time, but also in the right place. Get it wrong, and the value of that hard-won catch can evaporate in an oversupplied market…

Next week, The Catch follows two boats of very different fortunes. The Our Miranda, skippered by Matt Evans, is one of Devon’s highest-earning boats, catching a million pounds’ worth of fish every year. The other is The Van Dijck, a scallop trawler run by skipper Andrew “Drew” McLeod (pictured below), has definitely seen better days.

Known as the rustiest boat in the harbour, The Van Dijck hasn’t had the best run of luck. Drew has been running his ship for 25 years, but new scallop quotas mean that he can only fish 10 days a month. With his earnings restricted, his boat in disrepair and no spare funds for refurbishments, he only has a few months to turn things around or it’ll be game over. Essential viewing, surely.

The Catch, Episode 2, Monday, 7 September, 9pm. You can still see Episode 1 on Channel 4 On Demand.

Mike Warner is an ardent seafood fan who blogs at A Passion for Seafood. He is based in Suffolk and finds inspiration from the diversity of life in Britain’s inshore and shallow seas. Mike is a supporter of the under-10m fishing fleet, advocate of sustainably-caught fish and shellfish, and fount of maritime knowledge.

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