mackerel picture

The Longshore Fishery at Southwold - Past, Present and Future

The Present

The Boats

In the past, Southwold longshore boats were mainly built locally to designs that in many cases are similar to those found elsewhere along the Suffolk coast. Possibly the oldest longshore fishing boat remaining in Southwold is the "Arthur and Phyllis"; built at Southwold in 1919 for Joseph Palmer by boatbuilder William Ladd. She was originally designed as a sailing fishing vessel, but was equipped with an engine very soon after completion.

Over the years, boats have been brought from other places in Suffolk, such as Felixstowe Ferry and Aldeburgh Beach, and many show the characteristics of boats designed for the rigours of beach launching and recovery, rather than fixed moorings in the River Blyth. These include very closely spaced ribs or timbers, substantial plank doublings and oversize steel-shod bilge keels or runners.

Although boats built by the various yards have particular and specific design features (for example, steel knees in Ferry Boatyard boats), they have often been adapted to the needs and specification of the original purchaser, and subsequent owners. They certainly are in no way as uniformly built as production-line fibreglass boats.

Among the boats in the river in 2010 (and built since the Second World War), were to be found vessels by these Suffolk boatbuilders: -

Almost all of clinker construction, mostly larch on oak, and undecked, these boats are commonly around 18 feet in length, rising to around 21 feet (appx. 7 metres). The 7-metre limit puts these boats outside some of the requirements of the marine safety laws.

Building a new punt in wood is a skilled, time-consuming and expensive business. It is considered that a budget of at least £1000 sterling per foot is required today to build one of these boats. Although a very few new ones are built from time to time, many of the boats in service are beginning to age. Fortunately, there are boatbuilders, such as Gary Brown and Son, and Justin Ladd, both at Southwold, who are able to keep them in repair. Many have been extensively repaired and have passed into pleasure use.

Propulsion is by diesel engines, and the principal makes include Lister, Sabb (Norway), Perkins, Bukh, Volvo, Beta Marine and Yanmar. They may be air, water or keel cooled, and the horsepower ranges from about 10 hp up to about 40 hp.

Ancillary equipment is minimal, consisting mostly of trawl winches or capstans (hydraulic or belt-driven) and occasionally a hydraulic line hauler.

These boats are in general remarkably seaworthy, as they are designed expressly for the sea conditions on this coast. Even with some of the local "storm-warriors" at the helm, the saying that "the boat will take more weather than the man" still holds true.

Fibreglass boats are becoming increasingly popular, because of their ease of maintenance. As of 2008, the production of the Cygnus Marine fibreglass boat models BS-15, GM-16 and GM-19 (15, 16 and 19 foot in length) has moved to Southwold; and it seems likely that these vessels will become very popular here.

The Fishery

The Southwold longshore fishery is essentially a seasonal, small-scale operation. Because of the size and capacity limitations of the boats, the fishermen have to wait for the fish to come to them in their due season. They cannot pursue them all over the seas, as larger vessels do.

As well as the quotas for fish to be taken, there are also restrictions placed on the times when various fisheries may begin, by the Marine and Fisheries Agency (MFA), which is an "executive agency" of DEFRA (-Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - formerly the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food).

Matters such as training and compliance with safety regulations are within the remit of of the Seafish Industry Authority (SFIA) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

If this proliferation of interested parties may appear complicated and cumbersome to the reader, he or she is quite correct in thinking so!

The fishery is seasonal, and different species are targeted with different fishing methods according to the changing seasons.

The spring

Drift netting with traditional longshore driftnets, usually in "fleets" of up to 16 nets of 18-20 yards each, for the spring herring. These nets are shot across the tide, and are left to "drive" down the tide for 30 minutes to an hour, with the fishing boat always in attendance. Only herrings are caught, although seals often work along the nets, biting meshed fish in half, and making large rents in the nets. Spring herring are considered to be inferior in quality to those caught in the autumn.

Spring is also the traditional time for refitting the boats, in readiness for the summer season.

The summer and early autumn

April/May marks the start of the trawl season for Dover soles, with flounders, dabs, and occasionally brill, turbot and plaice being caught. There are strict limits on net mesh size, and on the minimum size of fish that can be retained. Undersized fish have to be returned to the sea, and it is an offence not to do so. However, it is notable that many British minimum fish sizes have been removed entirely by the EU (for example, since 2000 there are now no minimum sizes for brill, turbot, flounders or lemon soles), which seems an odd sort of progress!

Otter trawls (held open in the water by trawl "doors") are mainly used, although the occasional beam trawl of about 10 feet in length (3 metres) may be employed.

The low horsepower of the boats, combined with single-handed working, means that trawl gear has to be sufficiently light to be towed and "manhandled". It is completely different equipment to the heavy gear used by large vessels. Otter trawl nets are usually between 28 feet and 36 feet (8-11 metres) wide "on the headline". The opening of the mouth of these nets when working is about 2/3 of the overall width, and they are mainly shot by hand and hauled with small capstans.

Haddock are not caught in our waters, and there is no large by-catch of cod when trawling, as these fish move into deep water well offshore during the summertime. Also, it is not possible in small boats to tow trawl nets at sufficient speed to catch up with cod, who can swim away faster than the net.

Bass are nowadays taken in greater numbers, possibly because of sea warming. Most are caught in set or drifting trammel nets. From time to time sea trout are caught in a particular type of net, for which special licences are required. They have diminished considerably in the last 20 years or so.

Brown Shrimps are found in the summer, with the best usually being caught after the start of September. These are trawled for using small beam trawl (about 3 metre length) or otter trawls (usually 16 feet on the headline, or 5 metres). Unlike large shrimpers, the catch in longshore punts is immediately sorted and riddled by hand, to return any small shrimps, crabs, and immature fish to the water unharmed. A frequent undesirable by-catch when shrimping is the venomous weever fish, whose poisonous spine can penetrate even heavy-duty gloves. Occasionally pink shrimps and prawns are caught, but usually only in small numbers.

Crabs and lobsters are sometimes caught when trawling in the summer, but because of the soft "ground" in the longshore area, almost all of the crabs are of poor eating quality, and are returned alive to the sea. Often both crabs and lobsters are below the specified size limits and are put back. Lobsters, when seen for sale, have usually been caught further offshore in pots, often in the area of wrecks or "hard" ground.

Mid to late September usually produces a run of autumn herring, which are rated better fish than the spring run. These are frequently salted and smoked to produce bloaters and, occasionally, kippers.

The autumn and winter

Herrings continue awhile, depending on the wind and weather, and October and November are often the best months for these fish. Sprats usually appear in about November, and these are caught using driftnets similar to those for herring, but of smaller mesh size. The technique is almost the same, although fewer nets are generally used in the "fleet". These are sold fresh, or may be smoked.

Long lining for cod starts in the autumn and runs through to the spring. It is not as common in the smaller boats as it used to be, for several reasons. These include the need to go beyond the small boats' range to find the fish, and to carry and shoot more lines to make an adequate catch. Lining in punts was usually carried out two-handed (except by especially able singlehanders) but this is uneconomical nowadays. It is also necessary to use hydraulic equipment to haul quantities of lines, rather than hauling by hand.

Long lines consist of hand-baited hooks (baited with squid but sometimes sprats or lugworm), attached to "snoods" (short lengths of light but strong nylon twine) which are in turn tied on to a heavier line which is around 40 fathoms (14.5 metres) long. There are usually 38-40 hooks per line. Lines are shot in lengths of 12-40 or more lines joined together, with small "middle anchors" "bent on" at each join to hold them in place on the bottom. These groups of lines are known as "fleets" or "packs".

Larger "dan" (sometimes spelt "dahn") anchors are used on the ends of the fleet, with "dan tows" (ropes) attached to the anchors at one end and to a "dan" - a large buoy or float with a flag (and sometimes a radar reflector and flashing dan light) on top of a pole or "stave" on the surface at the other. To stop the dan buoys being pushed over by tide and wind, a smaller buoy called a "tide buff" is attached between the tow and the main dan buoy.

The dan buoys are the only signs of where the lines lay, and problems result if, for example, a vessel trawls over the fleet of lines, and carries one away!

After the lines are shot, they are left to fish for a while, usually until slack water (when the tide stops running for short while). They are then hauled by hand or machine, with the fish being "picked" or "gaffed", "backed off" the hooks, and the lines "backed in" to their containers (baskets or boxes) as they are hauled. Whether hauled by machine or hand, recovering the lines is a skilled business, as the boat has to be kept up to the gear in a particular way - whatever the states of wind and tide. The long liner has to be ready to react quickly to changes such as the wind suddenly altering direction.

The actual number of lines shot is dictated by: -

Whiting are caught, though not by intention. Most are small and are returned to the sea, but large whiting smoked are considered by some to be a great delicacy, and superior to smoked cod.

Skate (known locally as roker) and dogfish are also taken on lines.

Lining is considered selective, in that small fish cannot take the large size hooks used; thus catching only the bigger, mature fish.

At one time, much of the catch was sold direct to the passing trade at the Harbour, although this has dwindled somewhat. Until recently, there was a good trade in sprats and herrings, which were highly regarded by the older generation. Modern tastes have led to a steep decline in demand for these nutritious and inexpensive fish. Any fish over and above that which can be sold at the Harbour is taken to Lowestoft Fish Market, on the day it is caught.

There has been an increasing trend for fish and shellfish to be brought in from elsewhere for sale at the Harbour. If the amount of fish sold in and around Southwold, through all outlets (including pubs and restaurants), was truly locally-caught, then Southwold would be a fishing port on a par with Grimsby or Peterhead!

However, the local fishermen, selling their own seasonal catches direct, can be relied upon completely for the genuine article - Fresh fish, caught by Southwold boats and landed at Southwold.

An update on fish sheds - April 2010


However, things move on, and at the Harbour Inn end of the harbour (Blackshore) is to be found "Samantha K's" shed.

At the seaward end of the Harbour, near the ferry, the Sole Bay Fish Company's shed has been considerably enlarged, and offers a range of fish and shellfish, including some Southwold-caught fish. You can also eat your purchases in comfort at the shed (but bring your own wine and bread)!

Between these two sheds, the "Christina Cara" shed continues as before, and as well as fish and shellfish, provides highly-rated fish and chips.

New in 2009, the "Trio Fishing" shed has opened to sell their own caught fish (especially cod in winter and spring, and Dover soles summer and autumn). They are located midway along the Harbour.

All provide containers and ice to enable you to take your fish home.

"Charlotte's Fish" (formerly "Willie's Plaice") remains closed and, short of a miracle, seems unlikely to reopen as a fish shed.


Press to return to top of page


To return to the previous page, press the BACK button, or the NEXT button for the next section. Otherwise, click one of the links below to move around the article.

©P. G. Parke 2010