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The Seafood of Cardigan Bay

Fishmonger Will Willis at 'Fish on the Quay' in Aberaeron - It will be open this year from April 1st to December 24th. Media attention was recently focused on a so-called 'Invasion' of Spider Crabs in Cardigan Bay. The story was carried on BBC Wales and BBC News 24 (see Spider crab invasion). interviews were carried out with Fishmonger Will Willis (see left) at the Fishmongers at 'Fish on the Quay', Cadwgan Place, Aberaeron and with fisherman Winston Evans in New Quay.

The story highlighted the Seafood of Cardigan Bay - one of the best, yet least known natural resources of Cardigan Bay.

The mainstay of the local industry used to be the Herring. In 1808 it was reported that the fisherman of New Quay and nearby ports had caught nine million Herring in one night with catches averaging 4,000 to 5,000 fish per boat per night. 


Samuel Lewis wrote about New Quay in his Topographical Dictionary of Wales in 1833 that: 'There are at present from sixty to seventy vessels belonging to this port, averaging from forty to fifty tons' burden each, and employing from one hundred and fifty to two hundred men. Fish of very superior quality is found in abundance on this part of the coast, soles, turbots, and oysters, being taken in great numbers during the season ; a good herring fishery may also be established with advantage.' 

By the 1830's though, the catch had diminished and the fishing boats started to disappear to be replaced by larger boats designed to trade in various cargoes. The demise of the fishing industry at that time however gave birth to the shipbuilding industry for which New Quay and Cei Bach became famous.

Today, the netting of fish has almost died out locally as resource depletion and economic pressures have taken their toll.

Over the years since then, the number of local fishing boats has continued to decrease until there is often just a single boat going out of New Quay and only a couple of boats from nearby Aberaeron.

The mainstay of the local fishing industry today is Lobster and Brown or Edible Crab with Mackerel and Sea Bass being the main fish species. Will Willis tells me that he would like to see more local prawns on sale - "Cardigan Bay Prawns are superb" he says, "the best in the world". He also tells me that there are Brill, Lemon Sole and Dover Sole in the Bay that are not at present being caught.

Big Cardigan Bay Lobster

Fisherman Winston Evans by his boat trip kiosk. He also runs boat trips out of New Quay on the 'Ermol 5' and 'Ermol 6'. Left: New Quay fisherman Winston Evans outside his fish store and Boat trip kiosk.

Unlike South Wales, which has extensive sandy and muddy bays and estuaries, the coast of Cardigan bay is mainly rocky with small sandy coves. As a result cockles and other shellfish are not taken locally although some are imported from Ireland.

Mackerel are caught on long lines in Cardigan Bay. They are a fast swimming shoaling predatory fish with some of the highest levels of Omega 3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are thought to have significant health benefits including the lowering of blood cholesterol levels and an  overall improvement in cardiovascular health.

 Winston Evans has told of Mackerel shoals three miles long in days past. Today, however finding Mackerel is more like finding a needle in a haystack he said. He also noted that no Skate have been caught locally for some years. 

Mackerel are a good source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids.

Lobsters and Brown Crabs at 'Fish on the Quay' in Aberaeron

Fishing, almost more than any other industry has suffered from over-exploitation and consequent depletion of fishing stocks over hundreds of years. The small number of commercial fishermen in the area today reflects this reality. There are just not enough Lobsters, Crabs and Fish to support an economically viable larger local industry. However, Will Willis assures me that the seafood that remains is of the highest quality,

While large mainly foreign owned vessels take almost everything that swims in the sea, local Fisherman and Fishmongers are trying to conserve stocks. Will Willis tells me that he will not take berried (egg-bearing) Lobsters and that he always tries to buy the larger mature fish leaving the younger ones to grow and have a chance of reproducing.

Spider Crabs are also taken locally in the summer months from mid May through August. This is a species more commonly seen in France and Spain for it prefers warmer waters to the south. 

In the colder months the Spider Crab stays in deeper water from 30 to 100 metres where individuals spread out over a large area. When they come closer to the shore in the summer, they may form dense mounds especially after moulting when their shells are soft. 

There have recently been bumper years for Spider Crabs whose meat is thought by many to be at least as good as,  or even superior to that of the more traditionally taken Brown Crab.


Spider Crab

Nature is very resilient. Species will decline when predation is excessive, but will bounce back when those pressures decrease - at least up until a certain point. There is evidence that North Sea Cod stocks may never recover, but there is every hope that Cardigan Bay fish stocks will have stabilised and may even increase in future years with so few fishing boats going out locally.

Whatever the final outcome, both local residents and visitors alike can enjoy locally caught seafood, confident that its quality is first rate and that its consumption supports the local  economy.


Thanks to Winston Evans - New Quay Fresh Fish and Boat trips - 01545-560800.

Rod Attrill 2003