Whilst sailing off the South East Coast of the Inner Hebridean Island of Islay and looking across the calm waters to the Kintyre Peninsula, it’s easy to understand why John Baker always wanted to be a fisherman. John’s career began forty years ago, when at the age of 16, he joined his father Roberts boat. “Back then the little harbour in Port Ellen was home to over a dozen scallop and creel boats. The sea was plentiful and a fisherman could work five days a week and easily provide for his family. Fuel prices were low and profit margins high, and the social side of the industry was good too. Fishing was an integral part of the community.”
For much of the year John fishes alone from his boat “The Harvester”. The flat deck holds fleets of creels (baited, heavy steel framed nylon woven pots with a single funnel shaped entrance to catch crab and lobster) Attached to a weighted line, the creels shoot at intervals from the stern of the boat, to lie on the seabed in a set. A marker buoy is attached to the end of the line to both help with location and retrieval. The creels are usually left over night before being hooked and hauled in by winch, then emptied, stacked, re-baited and the whole process repeated.
Great care is taken when stacking the newly baited creels and the order in which they are put back into the water is vital. Many fishermen have lost their lives by being caught in the rope and pulled overboard.
Fishing is heavily regulated by the government and both fisherman and buyer must be licensed. The same however can’t be said for pricing; Buyers dictate the price depending on seasonal demand which is non negotiable. Surprisingly John and many of the local fishermen’s’ catches head to Spain.
Today the harbour is host to just a handful of boats and creel fishing is under threat of disappearing altogether. Stocks are depleted, fuel prices are crippling, margins are low and the high cost of maintaining a boat, means that fisherman like John, even when working six days per week, can no longer support their families by fishing alone. “When I started to fish, the investment in a boat and equipment was worth making, but today, unless you already own your own boat, it’s simply not worth the outlay.” Many Islanders have left the industry selling their boats, retiring or taking up new careers. John Baker will not be one of them and at fifty-eight he intends to fish until he retires. Sadly, the opportunities that John had, of fishing the once abundant waters of Islay, are no longer viable for today’s young Islanders. The decline of the fishing industry is just one of many factors making it an ever greater challenge for younger generations to both stay on the Island, and live as their parents, grand parents and generations of islanders did before them