Atlantic tuna wars: International fishermen clash over territory and style


NEWLYN, England -- "The Bloody Nut of Newlyn" taught his son well.

Michael Williams would laugh at gales and set a course with nothing more than his watch, compass, map and guile, using wire stretched tight to hear the "ping-ping" of a school of fish waiting to be hauled from the sea.

Now, the father remains ashore, as the son named Shaun sets sail, carrying on a 250-year-old family fishing tradition now hooked up to satellites and computers and bound by regulations and quotas set by European fishery ministers.

"I love the challenge," Shaun Williams says.

"You're right there, on your own. You can't ask questions. You have to act."

Especially in a war.

Shaun Williams piloted his 82-foot vessel Wendy Pulfrey into deep waters last week, accompanied by a Royal Navy escort, as Tuna War II began in the Atlantic.

Nearly 750 miles south of Cornwall, hard by the Azores, British and Spanish fishermen opened their summer assault on tuna, and each other.

"I don't hate anyone," Shaun Williams says. "We're all fishermen together.

We're all out to make a living any which way we can."

Last year's Tuna War left six British fishermen with frayed nerves and $160,000 worth of damaged nets, as Spanish skippers staked out their territory the old-fashioned way: by force.

It was a high-seas showdown between ancient seafaring foes.

But against this armada of Spanish fishermen, the English were outnumbered and outmatched, bobbing in the sea in wooden boats that could snap like kindling against the bows of Spain's mighty steel trawlers.

To prevent a repeat of last year's battle, the Royal Navy will patrol the disputed fishing grounds.

National fisheries inspectors, aboard a European Commission chartered vessel, will also patrol the area.

And there is likely to be intense media scrutiny.

As he made final preparations for his three-week venture into the fishing war zone, Shaun Williams not only had to deal with British fishing inspectors on the docks, he had to handle interviews as if he were a politician out on the campaign trail.

"I just don't understand the interest," he said while putting a fresh coat of paint to the Wendy Pulfrey's deck.

The story sells in England because it strikes all the right romantic chords.

For hundreds of years, the men of Cornwall have plied the Atlantic, bringing their catches back to wind-swept villages placed like barnacles along the southwestern tip of England.

The life is harsh and dangerous. Every fishermen knows of someone who was caught in a gale and never came back.

Every town has its heartbreak tales of fishermen gone bust. There is widespread concern that this ancient way of life is threatened economically as European fish stocks decline.

Last year's Tuna War came as English politicians fiercely debated their country's economic and social ties to the 15-member European Union.

To many here, the EU represents a loss of British sovereignty on a range of issues from rules in the workplace to calls for a single European currency.

"It was a volatile cocktail," says Michael Jack, Britain's fisheries minister.

The tuna fight is about turf and fishing styles. The Spanish are protective of grounds they have historically harvested with traditional methods of baiting hooks that are trailed from lines on long poles.

The British, and other Europeans, use drift nets that stretch 1 1/2 miles and hang like curtains in the water.

Last summer, Martin Jones of the Pilot Star found himself surrounded by a dozen Spanish boats whose crews cut up his nets, worth $40,000.

"One of the Spanish crew was wielding a bloody ax," he says. "I told my crew that 'the man is indicating that he's going to cut our gear -- at least I hope that's what he's saying.' "

If anybody thought tempers would cool down over the winter, they were wrong.

Earlier this month, the first English-Spanish clash was reported 100 miles from Land's End at the southwestern tip of England, heightening fears of another stormy season ahead.

Years ago, fishing was a lot simpler for families like the Williamses.

"These men in this family are all hunters, I suppose," says Yvonne Williams, 58, matriarch of a fishing family that sank its roots in Newlyn in 1745.

She met her future husband Michael one afternoon along the village's docks.

Two of their four sons are fishermen, while another is a member of the Royal Navy.

"This is a hard life," she says. "These men have all been raised in it."

But the life is changing rapidly.

When Michael Williams went to sea, he wasn't venturing into a war zone.

He made his money and his reputation by being first and going farthest to catch fish.

Now 58, his hair turned gray and skin burned by the wind, he still puts in a full day on the docks, organizing the trips made by his two fishing sons.

All told, the family has invested $750,000 in the fishing business.

"It's not fun anymore," Michael Williams says over a pint of beer at lunch.

"You've got rules and regulations you've got to follow. There are quotas.

"And there are the Spanish who are hell-bent on having our fish. They want it all."

Shaun Williams, 34, wears an earring, but he's a chip off his dad's block, spitting out words quickly and working constantly.

He took his first fishing trip when he was 10 years old and got sick over the side of the boat.

But he kept going back, learning his trade at his father's side.

"The best part of the job is when you get a good shoal of fish," he says. "That feels great."

If he is nervous about the coming season, then he hides it well. There is no false bravado about him.

For Shaun Williams, the tuna season will make or break the year financially as he follows the fish north toward the Bay of Biscay. He is armed with a video camera to record any incidents.

"I'm just going off to try and earn a living," he says.

He may be the last Williams to fish off Cornwall.

His wife Helen, 35, says she and her husband want a different life for their children, Emma, 12, and Aaron, 9.

But Helen Williams is not concerned with a fishing dynasty's prospects for the next century.

It's the next few months that worry her, as her husband encounters harsh seas.

"My husband went out first," she says proudly. "The others are waiting to see what happens."

The father taught the son well.

The Williams family always shows the way.

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