S H E L L S E E K E R S F I S H & G A M E
Darren Brown Bovington, Dorset
In terms of what he does, Darren Brown is easily the most extraordinary trader in the market. When you meet him, however, he doesn't seem extraordinary at all, but simply exceptionally cheerful and likable. He spent five years in the Navy and thoroughly enjoyed it, mainly because of the camaraderie which, even now, a decade later, he says he still misses. That's the kind of person he is — at least, until the conversation turns to dredgers.
Darren collects the scallops he sells not with a trawler, in the usual manner, but by diving. He started out as a chef (he was at college with Mark Hix) but then joined the Navy at least partly in order to learn to dive. He keeps his boat in Lulworth Cove, near Bridport, a small C-shaped bay with high promontories which is far better known as a tourist destination than as a base for fishermen. The path down to the beach is lined with cafés and restaurants, and on the day of our visit, a hot Tuesday in July, everywhere was full of people, some sipping tea or soft drinks, some eating scones or rock-cakes, others simply sitting on the beach enjoying the sun. A few (plus one or two dogs) were swimming. Apart from those serving in the cafés, Darren and his assistants seemed to be the only ones not on holiday.
The team's procedure is as follows. Three of them go out in the boat, often cruising six or seven miles along the coast, and Darren and his fellow-diver Andy put on wet-suits with two diving-packs each on their backs. The packs are filled with air containing forty per cent oxygen, as opposed to the normal twenty per cent, which helps them to withstand the pressure of the water and prevent a condition known as 'the bends'. They dive carrying four large nets each. The nets have air-bags attached to them: when the divers have filled them with scallops, they blow up the bags from one of the packs on their backs which sends them up to the surface, where they are picked up by the third member of the team. When all the nets are full or after an hour and a half, when their air supply is low, the team returns to the Cove to sort through their catch.
The scallops are graded with a measuring-iron into five sizes, ranging from 100 to 130 mm. They are then packed into fine nets, sealed, and thrown back overboard. In theory, as they live off plankton in the water, they can stay alive indefinitely, but Darren says that they should be used within three or four days or they become stressed (which raised the question of how aware scallops or oysters, or indeed any other fish are of their fate: see Edward Lear, The walrus and the carpenter). The numbers the team takes may be tiny by commercial standards but sound hugely impressive to me: that day, in two dives, Darren and Andy had collected 160 dozen, ie nearly 2,000.
Although he dives all the year round, the visibility under water when the weather is bad in the winter is sometimes virtually nil, 'and if you can't see, you can't work'. In the autumn and winter months, therefore, he puts on a second hat and shoots venison on a neighbouring estate, Creech Grange: Jamie Oliver takes a carcass a week. (In this instance, the deer are not fallow but Sika, another small non-indigenous breed.) The clams and other fish and shellfish on his stall are caught or collected either by him or two or three other local fishermen.
After nearly ten years of successful diving around the Cove, he now faces a problem: West Bay, one of his best-stocked scallop-grounds, has been discovered by a trawler using dreding-nets, which capture not only scallops but some fifteen or so other species, most if not all of which the fishermen don't want. It also ruins the sea-bed for a long time to come. His indignation rises and crashes like a tidal wave in a calm sea. 'Dredgers should be banned!' he exclaims with momentary but passionate fury. 'They completely wreck the marine environment!' I know that everyone reading this book will wholeheartedly agree.