Longshore Fishery at Southwold – Past, Present and Future
It often used to be said that longshore fishermen rode bicycles while the fish merchants drove Rolls-Royces! This is still true today.
In the past, it was possible to eke out an adequate (but usually modest) living from a small-scale, sustainable local fishery. Even then, many fishermen had other jobs during the winter, when they couldn't get to sea to fish. For example, they worked at Adnams Brewery and maintained river banks and sea defences for the Borough Council, along with other “odd jobs”.
Nowadays, such casual work is hard to find, and North Suffolk and Lowestoft are not renowned for their plentiful employment opportunities.
The arrival of larger boats, with their increased power, seagoing abilities, and fishing effort, has put the longshore fleet at a disadvantage. Where, for instance, shrimps were plentiful all summer round, one large shrimp beam trawler ("beamer") can empty the grounds in a day. Fishing grounds, which were inaccessible during spells of bad weather, are now continually exploited. Others, which by tradition were unfished except during poor weather, are also now under constant pressure.
As boat design and building becomes more sophisticated and technically advanced, it has become possible to produce boats under 10 metres in length which have more seagoing and voyaging capacity than the traditional punt. The greatly increased catching ability of some types of gear, especially monofilament nets (drifting or bottom-set), is considered by some to have put even greater pressures on fish stocks. GPS and fish-finding technologies have also increased catching ability. In an industry where the number of fishermen earning a full-time living from it is dropping year to year, there are always pressures to use the most efficient catching methods.
The scarcity of fish of all kinds in the years 2001-2 and 2002-3 severely affected the fishery at Southwold. In the period June 2002 to August 2005, around 11 fishing vessels in Southwold left this fishery. Some have gone as fishing boats to other parts of the country, whilst others have been sold as pleasure craft. As at January 2010, there is only one full-time longshore fisherman in a punt still working!
Several skipper/owners, especially older men, faced with the increasing burdens of bureaucracy, compulsory safety training etc., have sold their fishing licences while keeping their boats. By doing so, they can continue fishing as they did before, and have to observe two rules only. These are:-
It is outside the scope of this article to discuss the many and varied factors that have led to a reduction in stocks, and in fishermens’ livelihoods; and to the draconian rules and restrictions put up by the EU and blindly followed by generations of ignorant and cowardly British governments of all political shades. Anyhow, increasing bureaucracy and officialdom, from both national and local government, have considerably reduced the freedom of the “small man” to run his own fishing business without undue interference and in freedom. In addition, all costs for fuel, moorings, sheds and so forth have risen to extraordinary levels.
Other developments may in time be significant. These include global warming, continued seabed dredging and the proliferation of offshore windfarms. This last has both beneficial and detrimental aspects. On one hand, wind farms will in most cases be unfishable areas, and may therefore provide safe havens for fish; although not necessarily for breeding. On the other, loss of fishing areas will compel boats to go those which remain clear, and the pressure on particular grounds may become excessive.
However, we can only hope that the idea of "small is beautiful" will return to the longshore fishing. Perhaps then we will see it return to its rightful place as a centuries-old, sustainable fishery - if it's not too late!
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