The awe-inspiring shoreline of NE Yorkshire traces a majestic sweep from Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber, North past Flamborough Head and along the stunning strands and beaches that lie tucked into the foot of the dominating Jurassic chalk cliffs, so typical of this part of the UK’s North Sea coast. Shaped over time by seismic events that have catalogued their geological evolution, they have latterly had their character further refined, by the local inhabitants, who since the era of the Domesday Book, have taken to the water in search of wild food. Indeed, it’s obvious to even the most casual visitor to these shores, that the nuances and detail of the communities that nestle here, have derived their character and structure primarily from those who use the sea as a workplace.
Whitby, Filey, Bridlington and Scarborough, names synonymous with the seaborne trade of this coastline, have hosted every nautical discipline over time from whaling to whelking. Trades that have been plied for centuries, slowly and surely developing the persona of a locality that underpins the rich heritage that exists here.
Rex Harrison is central to the safe stewardship of that heritage. A long-time resident, local fisherman and ex-lifeboatman of Filey Bay, he has been working the inshore waters here all his life and, at 63, intends to keep going for many years yet. However, a threat to his livelihood now exists that could not only see the termination of his career, but ultimately wipe out a way of life and take with it the history and provenance of a fishery that, although small in stature and effort, is the epitome of artisanal fishing and all the craft that it entails.
Rex is a netter. He and his fellow Filey fishermen make their living by hunting the shallow inshore seas, on sandy ground, right under the cliffs, for prime sea trout and salmon that can command a worthy premium and rightfully afford them a living. It’s a seasonal fishery that runs from April to August and is licensed and monitored by the Environment Agency, as opposed to the MMO (Defra). Sea trout are the main catch and salmon thereafter. By-catch is small with the odd bass, mullet or flatfish becoming occasionally ensnared, but on the whole, the fishing is targeted and specific with very little or no environmental impact.
In recent years however, owing to the vast and exponential increase in the seabird population that inhabit the crags and cliffs overlooking Rex’s traditional hunting grounds, the number of guillemots and razorbills becoming trapped in the traditional “T & J”-nets employed gave rise to a natural concern for their welfare. Indeed in 2008, so grave became the concerns, that interest from the local RSPB sparked a detailed and lengthy conversation between the fishermen and their environmental counterparts.
The scenario being played out, only yards offshore from the raucous, nesting, colonies of seabirds, involved the entanglement of many of them, in excess of 500 per season, diving to reach the schools of sea trout and salmon being shepherded toward the monofilament curtain hanging suspended beneath a floating headline. Once hauled aboard, the resulting avian by-catch was then rendered either dead or incapacitated, once released from the mesh.
Concerns voiced by the RSPB were duly addressed by the fishermen, who recognised that an issue existed, although its increasing severity over time to the levels now being witnessed was undoubtedly due to the breeding success of the birds’ colonies and greater numbers than the fishermen had traditionally been used to.
Initial conversations were occasionally confrontational, but consistent dialogue and assistance in identifying the root cause of the birds’ demise, gave way to a much more proactive and indeed friendly acquaintance, resulting in a positive and collaborative partnership between science and practice and first name terms all round.
The nub of the problem centred around the birds’ habit of diving after the sand eels and other fry, balling up in the gear in an attempt to escape the target species. On reaching the nets in pursuit of their food, the birds subsequently became entangled in the mesh, escape from which was impossible.
When the fishermen realised what needed to be done, the response was rapid.
“We changed the monofilament for heavier nylon straight away,” Rex tells me.” The effect was dramatic and instantaneous. In that first year, our 7 netters took the by-catch down by a staggering 90% “Even the agencies were amazed when they saw the results.
“There was still much fine tuning to be done,” admits Rex, “but together we’d cracked it”. Over the next few years the by-catch of seabirds reduced to only 20, a mere fraction of what it had been, thanks to the fishermen’s ingenuity and invention.
By now, a serious working partnership had formed and when the opportunity to observe the headway made with similar issues in America’s Puget Sound salmon fishery was presented, Rex keenly grasped the opportunity. In the summer of 2014, funded by a GAP2 exchange project, Rex and scientific officer for Birdlife International, Rory Crawford (RSPB), spent a fascinating week talking to and learning from the Seattle netsmen, who had responded to near-identical scenarios in their own fishery.
“It was fascinating visit ” enthuses Rex, going on to elaborate on how similar circumstances in the Pacific, mirrored a lot of what was happening at Filey.
“Actually, although we learnt a lot from them, we’d come further in a far shorter space of time”, he confides. “I think they were able to learn just as much if not more from us.”
Back in the UK, and with rising or static numbers of salmon and sea trout being encountered year on year, and the bird issues successfully addressed, Rex and his colleagues were breaking new ground, in an era of conservation-led fishing practice.
“With continual tweaking and improvement in what we do, our techniques become more environmentally friendly,” he explains. I learn too that the fishermen work very much as team when afloat, using mobile phones to alert one another when not only birds, but other vulnerable sea creatures, such as porpoises are spotted and action can be promptly taken to avoid their capture. That practice, when coupled with the advancement of net design and continual monitoring of the gear at sea, leads to as near to zero-impact fishing as is practicable.
A sound and thoroughly well executed strategy. Well thought out, impeccably reasoned, expertly delivered. Rex Harrison and his Filey netsmen had nailed it. “A cracking success story,” as he delightedly concludes, during the first of my phone conversations with this passionate and engaging artisan.
Rory Crawford too, is hugely supportive and full of admiration for the innovative way in which the Filey “few” have stepped up to the mark and tackled the problem head on.
“I’m personally very sympathetic to their cause,” he tells me “The positive attitude we encountered has made such a difference to the way we’ve been able to engage and then collaborate.”
Crawford is no stranger to the issues surrounding avian by catch, that exist globally and has been involved in monitoring fisheries around the world.
“Finding ways of reducing by catch has always been our prime focus. Before we can initiate the process though, a relationship with those actually at the coal-face has to be firmly established and that must be based on trust and mutual understanding. Rex, is a shining example of how that has worked to perfection.”
“They assumed the responsibility,” he continues. “By understanding the whole local ecology and its diversity, the fishermen here have demonstrated, that by using their detailed knowledge of the local waters and the fishery therein, and coupling that with our scientific data, they’ve turned what was a potential calamity into sustainable, best practice. That must be applauded.”
So why do the fog banks of uncertainty and doubt, still roll in over the shoreline of this ecologically important and culturally essential part of the coast?
Rex and his fellow artisans have achieved almost the impossible and yet their livelihoods and the well-documented heritage of their predecessors, still hang in the balance. Hundreds of years of experience, craft, industry and knowledge are set to disappear almost overnight, as the axe of the Environment Agency falls and severs the line that allows them to continue fishing, with the revocation of their licences. Income, succession, provenance and community are set to suffer and the exasperation of these passionately committed souls is heartbreakingly tangible.
The sad and inescapable fact though remains, that lack of funding and inadequate staffing has meant that the ability to police the traditional net fisheries of the NE, has become unviable for the agency, the easiest and most cost-effective way out being to no longer renew the netting licences, as they expire.
Local MP for Thirsk and Malton, Kevin Hollinrake, is supporting Rex’s case and also explains that once the fishermens’ licences expire, it is the EA’s intention not to renew. This is the case not just for the Filey cohort, but all the salmon netsmen from the Humber to the Tyne, a slowly diminishing band with little voice and the odds heavily stacked against them.
“We must find a solution, even if there ends up being a compromise,” I’m told. “It’s not just the fishermen that will suffer here, it will impact across the whole community. Tourism plays a massive part in the local economy of this coastline and visitors flock to these historic fishing communities just to breathe in the atmosphere, soak up the history, buy local produce and of course once the fishermen go, you end up with an imbalance which will directly affect the region’s prosperity.”
As is the case with so many harbour towns and villages around the country, the mere presence of fishing boats and their crews can generate significant income for the locality without the vessels even putting to sea.
“Visitors just love to see us,” agrees Rex.”The fishing industry has always been an integral part of the community here. “It’s true sustainability. Fishermen have provided the lifeboat crews, supported local businesses and of course for years have been the coastal eyes and ears for bodies that now would have us gone.”
There will be a knock on affect to other local towns too. The fish market at Whitby, where much of the catch ends up, will come under pressure and with that a potential further decline in other fishery sectors that equally depend on its auction.
Another, even more disturbing scenario, could play out aboard Filey’s shore-launched Mersey class lifeboat, a selflessly managed and essential bastion of the town, crewed for generations by local fishermen, whose consummate knowledge of the seas here goes unchallenged. However this could suddenly and terminally change, much to the detriment of the countless seafarers navigating these most testing of waters.
Foster “Yogi” Camish, 68, is one of Rex’s contemporaries whose son Neil, (“Booboo”) is next in line to succeed on the current boat, although with Fosters’ netting licence now rendered non-transferrable and with little hope of his son continuing the family tradition, the prospects for perpetuating the watch of safe eyes, with a bank of locally-gleaned nautical experience, now appear woefully slim and comes at a hefty price, for the safety of their fellow mariners.
Rex is worried that a misrepresentation of the facts, could spell disaster for this close-knit, North Yorkshire community.
“If the salmon and sea trout were in decline, I could accept it,” he states. “But they’re not – far from it, the EA surveys themselves have shown that all the way up the NE North Sea coast, catch numbers have either increased or remained static for the last ten years. There are fish there to catch, we fish seasonally and now with the lightest touch on the environment you could imagine. I want my grandchildren to be able to fish here in the same way as I’ve always done, but right now that looks increasingly unlikely.”
Pressure is mounting too from the various recreational fishing organisations, that believe the netsmen have a detrimental effect on salmonid numbers that return each year to famous angling rivers such as the Esk, Tees and Tyne.
“The angling lobby is huge,” agrees Rex, “but this is our livelihood, we’re selective in our catch and when it comes to numbers, the rapidly increasing seal population’s impact on the salmon, casts what we do into a shadow. However we’re an easy target, a scapegoat, but once we’re gone, then illegal, unlicensed fishing will replace us anyway and cause a real problem for the EA and the anglers and have far more impact on stocks.”
Rex explains that although their licence allows them to fish from April to August, between April and June, salmon are only tagged and released.
“We weigh each fish, tag it and feed all the data back to the authorities,” he tells me. “Approximately 3% of the fish we catch are salmon, the rest are sea trout, the figures are all there, however there is no monitoring for recreational angling or, of course, for what the seals take.”
Kevin Hollinrake has embraced the fishermen’s plight and is due to meet with Fisheries Minster, George Eustice at the end of February, to further highlight the issues faced and seek a solution to what could soon become a catastrophic loss of heritage to the area.
“Mediation has to be the solution now,” he confides. “The salmon netters of Filey have done everything asked of them to ensure their survival and succession. It’s important now that we have the right dialogue with the government and its agencies, to ensure that they fully understand the implications for the communities here, should the fishermen disappear.”
Rex and his colleagues will have to wait. The saga continues and will doubtless rumble on with no real attempt to address their plight, as they constitute such an insignificant presence in the eyes of national concern. However, they have much impassioned support and a will to pursue their cause, with phenomenal determination and passion.
Sustainability is an oft-used word nowadays. A modern expletive, often cloaked in pseudo-environmental and media consternation with regard to fish populations. But it runs deeper than just that. Sustainability should engrain every part of a community, through its economic, environmental, cultural and social wellbeing.
Rex Harrison and his fellow fishermen are integral to that concept. What has taken generations to build and nurture should be allowed to continue and prosper, affording future participants the opportunity to not only enjoy the fruits of their labours, as true artisanal hunters, but to ensure the vitality and integrity of their communities. It will be a sorry day if such rich and irreplaceable heritage ends up being squandered and a time-honoured profession sacrificed on the altar of political and economic expediency.
Mike Warner February 2017
My thanks to Mindfully Wired Communications for the images.