Now Mike has retired after 22 years at Seafish, which followed more than twenty years of fishing as a partner in trawler Sparkling Star. But he’s not likely to disappear from the scene and when we spoke to him to look back, he was already deep in work on marine plastic waste.
With a chequered background as he and his brother were brought up in a Naval family that finally settled in northern Scotland, he initially went into education as a profession. After five years as a PE teacher in Glasgow, before he and his wife decided they would prefer somewhere quieter to bring up a family, and made the move back to Macduff.
‘We were brought up around boats in the north of Scotland, checking the creels before going to school,’ that sort of thing,’ he said, recalling that he was fortunate to find a berth after moving north.
‘I had a good idea of what fishing was like, but no real experience. It was sheer luck and very good of the skipper to take me on blind. The boat was Maureen from Fraserburgh, an easy-going boat.’
Maureen’s skipper Peter Duthie was generous with his knowledge, while Mike was also keen to learn, building on the knowledge of mending he had already picked up from fixing salmon nets, and teaching himself to splice wire from diagrams in a book.
‘I finished teaching before Christmas and was away to sea on the second of January. We started pair trawling for sprats from Shields, and worked north, and after that went around to Mallaig.’
Within a few years, Mike was able to become a partner in a boat, Sparkling Star, with Alistair Addison, and after a few more years they were able to upgrade to something better.
‘I saw the ad in Fishing News, and we went to take a look at the boat in Whitby. She had been built as the Diamond for Shetland, so it had everything. Just under ticket size, but a big boat and with separate cabins down below which was incredible in a boat that size,’ he said.
The boat had been through a few owners, having had its shelterdeck removed to go scalloping before being bought by Ian Davies in Whitby.
‘We put a lot of money into the boat, fitted a net drum and a powerblock, and it suited us fine; giving us a bit more comfort and allowing us to go a bit further to work trips away.’
Mike’s first brush with fishing gear technology was when Fraserburgh college sent a group of young students to the flume tank in Hull, and as there were a few spare seats on the bus for more experienced fishermen, he was quick to put up his hand.
‘I was amazed by what we saw at the tank, and had a great time,’ he said.
A few years later an ad appeared (again, in Fishing News) for staff to work at the flume tank, and while he was interested, he didn’t apply.
‘They wanted references,’ he said. ‘Where does a fisherman get references?’
When the ad had appeared for a third time, he did apply – and after an interview in Hull, the job was his.
‘It turned out they had some specific requirements, including training experience, and I was a qualified secondary school teacher, as well as some engineering experience and knowledge of fishing gear, I fitted all three requirements. I had been looking after the engines on the boat, and we had been doing all our own gear, with Alf Wallace who had a gear company in Buckie at that time,’ he said.
The whole family made the move to Hull and Mike was once again pitched in at the deep end in a new role.
‘Right away I was working on selectivity and gear development, including some major projects with the Marine Lab. Twin rig was just coming in at the time, and we were told that the industry didn’t want it. So we had to work on that quietly. Until then, it had been all about how to make fishing gear more efficient,’ he recalled.
From there the focus moved to selectivity and filtering out small fish using square mesh panels and other devices, until the early 2000s when the attention shifted sharply onto cod as recovery plans were put in place and the industry needed to respond to new requirements.
‘The first thing we needed to find out was how do cod behave? Until then all the work had been on haddock and whiting, so we worked with the Marine Lab with cameras to observe cod behaviour. Haddock and whiting are the energetic fish that find their way upwards and out through a square mesh panel. But we found that cod are lazy. They have to be kicked out of the gear, and that’s where devices such as inclined separators came from.’
Alongside this, Mike found himself working with fishermen in Northern Ireland to get their cod by-catch below the 1.5% threshold, carrying out numerous trials with different gears, often putting gear together on the quayside well into the night so as not to cut into their sea time. This included a Seltra box arrangement with 300mm mesh, which morphed into a straightforward 300mm square mesh panel.
‘It did the job, although it doesn’t have the stability of the Seltra box,’ he said.
Things changed when Seafish went through an uncomfortable process of repositioning itself with new focuses – which didn’t involve fishing gear technology at the same level, and the Hull flume tank was the casualty, and it closed its doors in 2007.