The Catch is a documentary which covers commercial fishing boats working from various ports around the UK. It aired on Channel 4 (and later More4) in Autumn 2015. Despite featuring high production values and winning praise for the innovative use of fixed rig cameras The Catch suffers from two serious problems. Firstly, the format of the programme is somewhat confusing (more on that later) and secondly, this series has an utterly reverential attitude to the crews featured in the programme and the commercial fishing industry in general. Issues such as overfishing, discards, environmental destruction and conservation are simply never mentioned. Despite this The Catch has some good footage of commercial fishing around the British Isles, and anyone interested in fish and fishing will enjoy aspects of it, although other series such as the BBC’s Trawlermen provide a more balanced and critical view of the commercial fishing industry.
From the outset the approach which The Catch takes to its subject matter is clear. Each episode begins with the fishermen who feature in the show and the narrator providing the following quotes: “fishermen are a breed apart,” “every trip is a gamble,” [fishing is] “the most dangerous job in Britain” and “as fishermen you are the last of the hunters.” Each episode is also given a title which is presumably meant to sound hard-hitting but ends up sounding somewhat cringe-worthy (examples include Got to Keep Fighting, In at the Deep End, I Ain’t Backing Down and Let’s Start a War). This clearly sets the awed approach which The Catch takes to documenting the working lives of the fishermen who appear in this programme.
The footage of the fishing is probably the strongest part of The Catch. Two of the main boats which feature in the show are the Govenek of Ladram (Hope of Ladram in Cornish) and the Van Dijck. The Govenek of Ladram is a 21 metre netter which has a crew of four to six. However, this information is not provided during the show itself and has to be gained by going on to the Channel 4 website. This is a major criticism of The Catch – it seems far too keen to tell us about how hard fishing is, how it affects family life and how much fishermen struggle, but is strangely reluctant to inform the viewer of simple, descriptive information about what is actually happening on screen. Indeed, none of the boats are really described and the type of fishing they conduct is glossed over in the briefest terms. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that The Catch is much more concerned with the people on board the boats than the actual fishing they are doing.
Across the eight episodes of the series we see the Govenek of Landram, skippered by Phil, setting miles and miles of static nets. The vessel can lay up to 40 miles of net (which cost around £140,000) which is left for 24-hours and then hauled on board when it will be hopefully be full of species such as hake and turbot. Trawlers towing through the nets once they have been set out is a constant worry for the crew of the Govenek. The Van Dijck is a scallop dredger which drags heavy fishing gear across the seabed to scoop up high-value scallops (although we are told practically nothing about how this works). It is skippered by Drew who is under immense financial pressure due to the constant repairs the vessel needs.
Anthony ‘Shiney’ Shine of Trawler Wars features in some episodes. He is blunt and imposing but is a very successful skipper of the Sylvia T, bringing in high-value catches without travelling as far out to sea as many of the other skippers do (although he does use a credibility-sapping selfie stick to video call his family back home). Other vessels which feature in the series include the Our Miranda, Sunrise and the Ocean Dawn which works as a pair trawler with another vessel in Scottish waters. There is little logic to which vessels feature in each episode, with some featuring heavily across multiple episodes and others only featuring in a single episode. Strange editing decisions like this give anyone watching all eight episodes in chronological order a confused and disjointed viewing experience, and it is difficult to work out what kind of narrative story The Catch is trying to tell over the entire series.
The Catch attempts to go beyond being a simple documentary by providing talking head style interviews with both the crews of vessels and their families back home. We hear constant stories about how physically demanding commercial fishing is, and how much danger fishermen are in simply by going out to sea and doing their job. There are also multiple interviews with wives who are back at home and sometimes the children of the crews. However, this part of the programme is really is completely overdone, with many of the excerpts simply consisting of wives/children fretting over their husbands absence as if they are the only people in the world who work in dangerous jobs or have to spend long periods of time away from home.
Another issue with this programme is that certain parts of it appear to be contrived. In the first episode the skipper of one vessel asks a new crew member what experience he has of being at sea when they are already on their way to the fishing grounds! In other episode we see the Govenek of Landram having a hard time catching any fish. The narrator drives home the point that the crew will not make any money unless fish are caught. When the final nets of the trip are pulled in they are all full of high-value turbot and the crew will in fact get paid. This uplifting end to the episode happens at least three times in the series with one boat alone, leaving the viewer with the sense that some editing may have been involved to provide the narrative of several episodes.
In subsequent episodes it becomes apparent that The Catch is utterly obsessed with new crew members who have no experience of commercial fishing being placed on the boats. Indeed, every episode features as least one new crew member and some episodes feature several new crew members across different boats. Sometimes we are given a flimsy reason why new crew members are needed, while at other times they are simply placed on board at the start of the show without any explanation. In one episode a young man called Travis impresses with his hard work on the Cornish fishing boat Our Miranda, while in another episode he appears in Scotland to work on the Ocean Dawn, a pair trawler. How and why he has travelled to the other end of the country is never explained. Some of the new crew members do not adapt to commercial fishing at all. Aaron on the Our Miranda comes from a background as a ”singer, actor and dancer” and doesn’t last beyond his first trip, while a young lad called Simon on the Sylvia T comes across as a complete spoiled brat, going as far as to threaten to cut himself with a knife so that the boat he is on will have to return to port.
The viewer can only guess as to why this obsession with new crew members exists, it is certainly never explained to the viewer. Maybe the show originally had a different format which would have made more sense? It is confusing and somewhat frustrating that the viewer never simply see how a boat with an experienced crew operates with an experienced crew on board as every single episode is based around new crew members being on board for every trip.
The major criticism of The Catch, however, is that the reverential attitude it takes to both commercial fishermen and the fishing industry means that there is no room whatsoever for any consideration of conservation, declining fish stocks or the damage which trawling causes to the marine environment. In fact The Catch takes place in a world where the seas are abundant with fish and failure to catch means that the fish have simply moved away. In the sixth episode Phil, skipper of the Govenek of Ladram, is struggling to catch anything, but states that this is because the fish have “moved further north.” Simon, a deckhand, adds that things aren’t like they used to be when they could catch fish ten miles off shore, but this is never connected to declining fish stocks. Phil also states that the increased number of sea lice and other parasites on fish is due to the amount of fish commercial vessels are forced to dump at sea, but there is zero mention of discards. Indeed, there is no mention of any negative aspect of commercial fishing at all – the heavy dredges of the Van Dijk are filmed scraping across the seabed with no indication of the damage it is causing to the marine environment, and the Ocean Dawn is seen pulling huge nets full of fish from the sea without a single mention of the impact that commercial fishing has had on fish stocks over the last fifty years.
Skipper Drew’s complaints about the limited number of days he is allowed to go to sea to dredge for scallops are also portrayed in a sympathetic light, with no reference to the fact that days at sea are limited to protect stocks. Other similar programmes such as Trawlermen on the BBC did address these issues, and even the heavily criticised American series Wicked Tuna paid some attention to the endangered status of the Bluefin tuna which were the target of the fishermen in that show. The Catch is however far too in love with the romantic image of fishermen to dare to make even the slightest criticism of the commercial fishing industry. This is doubly disappointing as Channel 4 did so much good work in bringing the issue of discards to a wider audience through Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight programmes, and it is immensely puzzling as to why Channel 4 have then followed that up with a series which is in effect little more than a positive public relations exercise for the commercial fishing industry.
At the end of the sixth episode the viewer is informed that the final two episode of The Catch will not be shown on Channel 4 but will instead be aired on More4. Such an unceremonious move to a digital only channel is not indicative of high viewing figures, and casts serous doubt on there ever being a second series of The Catch.
Overall The Catch is a frustrating series. The production value and budget are obviously high, but the lack of clear information on the type of fishing which is being carried out leaves the viewer confused about what is happening on the boats. This confusing viewing experience is exacerbated by the new crew members who are placed on boats in every episode with zero explanation. Furthermore, the director/producers of the programme appear completely mesmerised by the commercial fishing industry meaning they fail to give even the briefest mention to the major issues of overfishing and environmental damage which are so relevant today.
With the resources which went into making The Catch, and the chance it had to provide a realistic and informative view of the commercial fishing industry to a prime time mainstream TV audience, this series has to be viewed as a wasted opportunity.