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What the future holds for our fishing fleets in Hastings

PUBLISHED: 11:14 25 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:14 25 March 2014

Herring boats pulled up on the beach or stade at Hastings - Copyright Matthew Evans 2008

Herring boats pulled up on the beach or stade at Hastings - Copyright Matthew Evans 2008

Copyright Matthew Evans 2008

Not long ago, thousands made their living from the harvest of our seas: now, fishing seems to be in decline. Tim Parker went to Hastings to find out what is next for an important local industry

Net huts, The StadeNet huts, The Stade

Whether or not our local fishing fleets have a future is an important question for all of us living near or along Sussex’s magnificent 90-mile shoreline. Not so long ago, thousands of fishermen made their living from our coastal waters. But for years fishermen and fishing boats have been in decline, and their numbers continue to diminish. When I first came to Sussex in the 1960s it was still common to see dolphins in the Channel, sometimes 30 or more of them together. But now those remarkable creatures are a rare sight, surely a sign that there are not enough fish in the sea to keep them here. Of course the problem is not confined to Sussex: fish stocks all over the world are falling and the North Sea, once able to feed millions, is now a shadow of what it was even as relatively recently as the 1930s.

In 1952 I was a sailor in the Royal Navy and my ship was on passage from Portsmouth to Rosyth in Scotland. Off the Norfolk coast, we encountered a Russian Herring fleet of some 100 trawlers (drifters). Nothing very remarkable about that, but each of the drifters had nets some two miles long which they would shoot over their ship’s bows. In the distance was an enormous factory ship, dark and sinister. The following day our ship passed a Polish Herring fleet. It too had a similar fleet of trawlers, rather smaller than the Russians’, but in the background lay yet another factory ship.

What of course we now know is that the North Sea was unable to sustain such intensive fishing. To compound the problem, great rivers like the Rhine continue to carry toxins out to sea from the industrial heartland of Europe, poisoning its waters. There is another problem: just a year or two back I visited Vlissengen (which once we British called Flushing), the home port of the Dutch fishing fleet. There, to my horror, I saw a line of very large beam trawlers with chainmail nets hanging from their masts. Chainmail nets catch plenty of fish, but when dragged over the seabed, also catch and kill everything that gets in their way. Fishing in this manner harms the sea’s delicately balanced ecosystems and will ultimately destroy underwater habitats.

Back in Sussex, Hastings was once an important centre for herring fishing and the wooden towers (net huts) in which the fishermen used to hang their nets are still there. Sadly, you need to visit the local museum and gallery to get a real sense of the heyday of Hasting’s fishing fleet. Nevertheless, even today there are still fishing boats that surf ashore on Hastings’ eastern beach, very exciting on a rough day.

So what of the future of these boats? Hastings is doing its utmost to keep its fishing industry alive. There is an active Fisheries Local Action Group (Flag) and a Hastings Fisherman’s Protection Society. There is evidence that fish stocks are improving and in particular there are sufficient stocks of herring off Hastings to be a sustainable resource. In November 2012, FLAG organised the first Hastings Herring Fair, which aimed to promote herring and the Hastings fishing fleet to the general public and professional chefs alike. There were shanty singing, talks, films, stalls showcasing herring cookery, pickling and smoking skills. The Herring Fair returned to Hastings last year.

Roger Saunders, once Headmaster of St Christopher’s School, Church Road, Hove is now for all practical purposes a professional fisherman as well as a talented artist. In a small boat, and usually alone, Roger practises his art in the Channel seas off Brighton. Fishing is a hazardous business, and the weather can change very quickly – one moment clear and bright and minutes later a sea fret which will cut visibility to a few yards. And then there are the stiff south westerly gales which come from nowhere.

When I asked him how things were, Roger said: “There are still a few good sized cod and the mackerel are in.” He reported that there was plenty of herring in the Channel, but the price tended to be poor, which is just what I had heard in Hastings. Once enormously popular with the home cook, herring has fallen out of favour, and thus in price. “It is a problem,” agreed Roger, “but I enjoy eating herring more than any other fish. Herrings fried in oatmeal with a glass of whisky: that’s a meal to die for.”

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Fishy facts

-A factory ship, also known as a fish processing vessel, is a large ocean-going vessel with extensive on-board facilities for processing and freezing caught fish.

-Commercial fish processing ships can affect birds, whales, dolphins, turtles and sharks by their broad reach methods of catching fish.

-Purse seine ships, with nets up to two kilometres in circumference, can encircle whole shoals of pelagic fish, such as mackerel, herring and tuna.

-The threat of overfishing is not limited to the target species only. As trawlers resort to deeper and deeper waters to fill their nets, they have begun to threaten delicate deep-sea ecosystems and the fish that inhabit them.

-A major international scientific study released in November 2006 in the journal Science found that about one-third of all fishing stocks worldwide have collapsed.

-The most sustainable way of fishing is by line.

-The Sussex coastline is over 90 miles long.

-Hastings has been a maritime centre for over a thousand years.

-Hastings’ shingle beach is called the Stade (‘landing place’).

-On the Stade are more than 25 boats, the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in Britain.

-Hastings fleet pelagic herring certified as sustainable in September 2005, re-certified in August 2012.

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