Town's last fisherman driven out of business by EU rules
There were once so many fishing boats in Great Yarmouth that locals claimed you could walk across the harbour over the decks of the fleet. But now, after years of decline prompted by European Union quotas and environmental concerns over fish stocks, the town's last full-time fisherman has announced he is quitting the industry.
By Jasper Copping
Published: 9:15AM GMT 13 Dec 2009
The Norfolk town has a fishing heritage that dates back to Roman times and, early last century, had a fleet of more than 1,000 craft.
But Jason Clarke's 32-foot (10 metre) boat, Eventide, is the town's last commercial vessel and once he stops work next month, there will be none.
Mr Clarke, 39, who is the fourth generation of his family to have fished, said he was "bitter" at having to leave the industry.
He blamed the EU's quota system for forcing him out and for destroying the town's fishing fleet over the past decade.
The announcement comes ahead of a meeting due to start tomorrow in Brussels, at which of European ministers will adopt fishing quotas for 2010. Fishermen are braced for even tougher restrictions and Huw Irranca-Davies, the fisheries minister, has already warned that this year's negotiations are likely to be "tougher than ever".
Mr Clarke said: "It is an absolute farce and I've had enough of it. I don't want to give up but there is only so much you can take. I will miss the fishing but it has been ruined by bureaucracy.
"The boat needs to make £2,000 a week minimum to make it pay and you can't get anywhere near that any more because of the restrictions.
"It is really sad for me and the family, after four generations of fishing. But I have been forced out by Brussels. It is sad for the town too."
Under the current quota system, Mr Clarke says he is permitted to land around 275lbs (125kg) of cod – the most lucrative species – each week.
He finished his annual quota for skate after just a few months of the year. "Our cod quota is not enough to feed the cat," he said.
Once fishermen have reached their quota for a certain species, under the current system they must return any fish they catch to the sea, even if they are already dead.
The quota system was introduced by Brussels following concerns about the low levels of some fish stocks, but Mr Clarke said that from his own observations he believed that the population levels were now very healthy.
"There is so much fish in the sea, despite what you hear," he said. "If I was leaving because there were no fish out there, it would be easier – but is just isn't so.
"It is ironic that I have to get out at the time when the fish are at an all-time high. In this last year, I have never seen as much cod in all my life.
"This fallacy about no fish in North Sea makes my blood boil. This last year, we could have made a very good living, but the system doesn't allow you to catch anything.
"Don't get me wrong. Every fisherman is in favour of conservation."
He added: "If it carries on, it won't just be Yarmouth, there won't be fishermen anywhere. No one can work full time at this."
Although a handful of hobby fishermen will continue to operate out of Great Yarmouth, Mr Clarke said that even the numbers doing this were low and decreasing.
"There are not that many part timers," he said. "There are no youngsters coming up behind us. Who would get involved in fishing now?"
A century ago, Great Yarmouth's fishing industry was in its heyday based on herring – known as "silver darlings".
The fish was sold all over the country and abroad, and the elegant properties that line the port were built on the prosperity they brought. But overfishing in the 1920s and changing fashions destroyed the industry. The invention of the fish finger led to a preference for white fish which is only now beginning to change.
What was left of the fleet has since been finished off by the EU quotas. By the 1980s there were just 20 or so vessels in the harbour.
Next month, Mr Clarke is due to start work as a skipper on a boat servicing wind farms off the Norfolk coast.
His brother, Richard, 38, with whom he used to fish, already works on a wind farm boat.
"There will be less stress and it will be an easier life. I am looking forward to it," Mr Clarke said.
He has been in discussions with another fisherman who may continue to use the boat, on some occasions, but they have not yet reached a final agreement.
Nikki Hale, the chief executive of Eastern England Fish Producers' Association, said: "It is heartbreaking and disgusting that EU legislation has pushed the family to this decision. They have a long connection to the fishing industry and seem to have just reached their wits end.
"Yarmouth was synonymous with fishing. But this is not just a local problem.
"There is plenty of fish out there, but we are struggling to get that message out. The stocks have got better and better in the last few years.
"But when we look at the quotas being proposed for next year, it is only going to drive more boats out of business."
Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, said: "Great Yarmouth was the scene of a massive fishery. Personally, I regret the loss of the link back to small scale fisheries. Anyone with a soul would do so."