Dan the Fishman is known to many around the South West as the happy face selling freshly-caught fish from the back of his van. But behind the fun side, there’s a passionate campaigner for the nation’s seafood.
If a Hollywood director was casting around for someone to play a salty, son-of-the sea, then one imagines Dan Garnett wouldn’t even need to audition. The beard, the jaunty captain’s cap, the yellow apron and the stripy shirt…he’s got the look down to a tee.
And yet Dan is no cartoon character. Although you won’t spend long in his presence without laughing at his mischievous sense of humour accompanied by a throaty snigger, soon the talk turns serious as he wages his campaign to promote the benefits of cooking and eating British seafood.
Known to all in the South West as ‘Dan the Fishman’, he is a familiar presence at markets and quaysides across the region, selling fish from the back of his small van. But that retailing of fish is but the sharp end of a major operation spearheaded by Dan which is helping to promote the region’s fishing industry.
And it’s all done from the picturesque north Devon seaside village of Appledore, as Dan explains: “Things were a little haphazard and not coordinated for so many years and fishermen in this part of the world were not being backed or given the facilities they needed.
“We secured Government funding and managed to create Appledore Fish Dock, where the fishermen have a proper facility to land their catch and get it to market. I am very proud to see it working so well.”
Indeed Dan is a major customer of the fish dock, rising in the wee small hours most days at his home along the coast in Clovelly in order to check on the catch coming in and stock up his van. He’ll then head for his regular market spots where regulars queue up for the freshest of seafood from a man who is a walking encyclopaedia on the benefits of eating it.
He’s also a dab hand at cooking it. I joined Dan recently on a special trip to the stunning island of Lundy, just off the north Devon coast, aboard the MS Oldenburg, which sails regularly from Bideford and Ilfracombe. And no sooner had we boarded than Dan was setting up his portable stove and cooking up trout with scrambled eggs.
Dan’s aim for the day trip – as always – was to find innovative and eye-catching ways to promote seafood. And so later we perched ourselves under Lundy’s main lighthouse, looking out across the bay, and he cooked up a terrific seafood stew, preceded by fresh oysters. For Dan it was all in a day’s work.
“I’m always trying to find ways to bring fish to the public’s attention,” he reveals. “I started off over 30 years ago in a rowing boat, fishing for herring off Clovelly. The seas are all I know and I am so passionate about people eating more seafood and cooking with it. It’s what I call real food for real people.”
A campaigner for the nation’s seafood, and always at the forefront of marketing innovations to bring the benefits of seafood to wider public attention, Dan’s latest ruse is a webcam inside the tank in which he keeps lobsters fresh for customers. “You can log on and see the lobster you would like and let me know,” he explains.
A day with Dan is a day well spent. He is engaging, gregarious company, but that doesn’t hide the zeal with which he campaigns on behalf of his industry. “We need to help our fishermen,” he concludes, “otherwise we will lose a vital part of the UK’s heritage and see it die out before our very eyes.”