In Storied Hastings, English Fishermen Worry About Overfishing, Competition

Dec 19, 2013
Originally published on December 19, 2013 4:42 pm
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We've been hearing this week about a special relationship between many British people and something called the Shipping Forecast. It's a broadcast on BBC Radio of sea and weather conditions off the coast of the British Isles. Even landlubbers enjoy it each night before bed.

NPR's Philip Reeves has taken us to several coastal communities where the forecast actually matters. And today we have his final visit. It's to England's south coast and the ancient town of Hastings overlooking the English Channel. The Hastings fishing fleet launches from the beach, not a harbor. Philip went there and ran into Stephen Edmunds just back from a trip to sea.


STEPHEN EDMUNDS: We done a lot of fishing, only a bit two mile out, two and a half miles. But cod there today, plaice, turbot, Dover Sole, skate, gurnard...

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: And I watched you come in there. Tell me what you did there.

EDMUNDS: Well, I just steam it in, like to where our berth is and just stick it on.

REEVES: So you kind of crash into the beach?

EDMUNDS: More or less, yeah, that's right. Yeah, just drive it in to the beach on full. Yeah, on full power.

REEVES: Stephen Edmunds has been a fisherman his entire life. He's a weather-beaten man in his 50s who's seen the best of times and the worst of times. Today is bright and bracing though the Shipping Forecast is mixed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There are warnings of gales in Viking, North Uitsera, Thames, Dover, Wight...

EDMUNDS: That's what we listen for - Thames, Dover, Wight. We're in between Dover and Wight, so we always listen to it. Thames, Dover and Wight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: North or northeast, six to gale eight, becoming variable three or four later, showers, good...

EDMUNDS: A very cold morning and a strong wind to the north going away to nothing tonight. The weather has broke for a bit now, but we did have two weeks of windy weather. You know what I mean? And no one moved. Still doing your homework - your stitching and all that sort of thing but, you know, you have got to get out there. You've got to get some pennies. Got a mortgage, same as anyone.


REEVES: The fishermen of Hastings are tight knit. Fathers, brothers and sons fish together in rugged little boats, no more than ten meters long. Families have worked off this beach like this for centuries, says Stephen's brother, Richard Edmunds.

RICHARD EDMUNDS: I've researched my family and I can date it back to the 1580s in Hastings, fishing from this port, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my father. I was very, very young when my father first took me to sea - you know, six or seven - just to teach me how to understand the sea legs, and not being, what we call it, gammy. Gammy means you're very sick. Then he would teach you how to stand to stop you falling over every time the vessel rolled.


EDMUNDS: The fishing here is fantastic, it's the quotas that will eventually destroy this industry.

REEVES: These are restrictions imposed by the European Union...


REEVES: ...in an attempt to control the fish - manage the fish stocks.

EDMUNDS: Yeah, right. Just to manage the fish stock here, exactly. But sometimes the quotas they put on are ridiculous.

REEVES: Hastings has one of the oldest beach-launched fleets in Britain. A boat is preparing to come in amid a cloud of seagulls.


REEVES: The boat sails straight towards us, at speed and hits the beach. A couple of men place blocks of oiled wood under the hull so the boat can be winched up the stones. That's how they do it here. It's tricky says Richard Edmunds.

EDMUNDS: It's very hairy, you know? The vessels ride well on the seas, but when you get closer to shore, you get crests of waves and the vessel doesn't answer because the stern will lift up. And then your rudder is out of the water so you can't steer the vessel, and the vessel will do what the waves tell it to do.


REEVES: Douglas Joy was in that boat that's just landed. It's actually his brother's.

DOUGLAS JOY: Yeah, I am doing my brother's boat. And another time, he might help me. It was very windy. We didn't go out far, about a mile. And there was a lot of wind coming out, gusts of a gale at times. When you chuck the nets back up over the side, it sometimes blows back in your face.

REEVES: Douglas' brother, Paul, says their family has been in Hastings since before William the Conqueror and his Norman army sailed in from France and invaded.

PAUL JOY: They've said we go back into the 10s and before the 1000s - well, up to the 1000s anyway.

REEVES: Actually fishing.

JOY: Actually fishing.

REEVES: So your great, great, great - I don't know how many greats I need to add here - grandfather was going out in a boat not all that different from this boat and catching the same kind of fish that you guys are catching today.

JOY: Very much so. There was a huge herring industry here at the time and the fleet used to follow the herring route.

REEVES: Paul Joy is from the Hastings Fishermen's Protection Society. He's in the front line of a campaign to stop the authorities allocating the lion's share of fish quotas to big boats so that small vessels get a proper share.

JOY: Sustainable fishing is very important to us. We feel it's more not what we get out of it today, but the heritage is, as you said, goes back (unintelligible) goes back a thousand years so we want to make sure in another thousand years our fishers can still sustain jobs (unintelligible) community.

REEVES: People here worry that the fleet's going to die out anyway because these days, sons can't afford to follow their fathers into the business.

JOHN BARROWS: A few of us have said, I can't carry on the tradition or I would struggle to carry on the tradition.

REEVES: John Barrows(ph) started out fishing with his father, a lifelong fisherman. Now, John's in his 30s and has a family and a house to pay for. He's become a truck driver.

BARROWS: Obviously worried about not being able to pay bills and, I mean, a couple years ago the boys down there, they went probably two, three months of bad weather, blown a gale every day, just simply couldn't get to sea. And didn't have no money for three months. I mean, wouldn't be no good for me.

JACKIE: My name's Jackie and I'm born and bred in Hastings from a very well named Adams family, goes back generations and generations of fishing families.

REEVES: Jackie says that every now and then, tragedy strikes the community. A few years back, the wife of a trawlerman in another southern English seaside town lost her husband in a freak storm. His body was missing for many months.

JACKIE: They found the boat, but not the body. Without a body, she couldn't get a death certificate or his bank direct debits and that was still going out emotionally, financially as well. They was broken.

REEVES: A charity called The Fisherman's Mission helped out. The dead man's widow decided to show her gratitude by raising funds for that charity with music. Jackie and her friends rallied round. So did other women from Britain's fishing communities to form the Fishwives Choir.


JACKIE: We're singing actually "Eternal Father," which is a very famous song that's always sung at fishermen's or people who work at sea, at their funerals.


JACKIE: It's always been that way whenever there's a disaster in different areas. They always, always, the fishermen stick together and help each other always.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, it can be horrible. It can be really horrible. It takes no prisoners. You got to respect it. If you don't respect that, that little ocean out there, take it (unintelligible).

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.