'Fishermen should grow up' - Report sparks clash over crab fishery
- Credit: Archant
Every year thousands of visitors flock to Cromer to walk along the pier, build sandcastles and to enjoy its famous crabs.
But what many do not see are the Cromer Shoal chalk beds, a unique marine environment that is home to the town’s famous crabs and is currently at the centre of a debate involving the fishing community, conservationists and Natural England.
The chalk beds, located off the coast between Weybourne and Happisburgh, were designated a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) in 2016.
Since the MCZ was created, Natural England (NE) has been investigating the health of the chalk beds and the effect of potting - the method of using pots to fish for crabs and lobsters - on them.
In October 2020, NE published a report sharing its initial findings and issued advice to the Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (EIFCA) that potting and especially storing pots on the reef damaged raised areas of the chalk.
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It found that although individual incidents were small scale the cumulative effect was significant and more research was needed.
Now, six months down the line, there is uncertainty on all sides about what the future holds.
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On one side, conservationists liken the reef to a rainforest, a precious habitat that must be protected. On the other, fishermen who depend on the reef for their livelihoods, are fearful for the future of their industry.
What the fishermen say
The findings of NE’s report came as a shock to the fishing community which said it felt as though “the goalposts had been moved”.
John Davies, head of the North Norfolk Fisherman's Society and member of the EIFCA steering group which has been working with NE, said fishermen were extremely worried.
He said they felt "cheated" because when the MCZ was proposed the community was told "nothing would change" and there would be "no financial implications" to businesses.
Mr Davies, who is an eighth-generation fisherman, said: "If we were to be stopped doing what we are doing then there is no industry and all that heritage is gone. We could well lose that if things go the wrong way."
He said the community had been told the next stage of the NE process would take two years in which time fishermen were "in limbo" and "at the beginning of a slippery slope" in terms of what they would be permitted to do.
Mr Davies said: "Yes, I'm fishing and running my business but none of us know what's going to happen, the situation just started, what's around the corner?
"It doesn't feel fair. If you want to go and look for some damage you can go and find some damage. If you put two surfaces together there's always going to be some sort of damage."
He said Cromer's fishermen were doing what their families had done for generations but were now "the bad guys".
“We are conservation-minded too and people tend to forget that and we are passionate about what we do and our heritage,” he said.
John Lee, who owns J Lee Crabstall and also comes from a long line of Cromer fishermen, said the NE report “felt like a constant threat”.
He said: “They come up with these reports about what you are supposed to be doing and what you are not supposed to be doing. It’s frustrating to say the least.”
“The threat of being told we can’t fish there anymore? It would have a devastating effect on our fishery and the tourism industry as well, because without blowing our own trumpet, the Cromer crab is world renowned.”
Like Mr Davies, Mr Lee pointed to the length of time the Cromer fishery had existed, how little fishing methods had changed during that time and the “pristine condition” of the chalk bed when the MCZ was established.
He also criticised the evidence used to inform NE’s report, and said it did not take into account the ever changing nature of the sea bed.
“The evidence is very thin. I read that report when it came out. It’s not a long report and it’s very short on evidence.”
What conservationists say
Rob Spray, a diver and conservationist, is one of the few people who has seen the chalk bed up close, having dived the area for more than 20-years.
Mr Spray, who submitted evidence to the NE report and has photographed the chalk bed extensively, described the area “as a wonderful place”.
He said: “It’s a really fantastic, wonderful place. It’s like having a rainforest just off the shore.”
Mr Spray said in recent years he and his fellow divers had noticed damage to the chalk bed where “lost pots had been allowed to smash the chalk up”.
“The chalk is not that strong. It’s the fragility of it that makes it attractive to mammals.
“The observation that I made was that it looked a lot like the potting was reducing the height of the chalk.
Eventually NE decided that they would do a study. They did a small study that built off what we had seen in over 1,800 dives.”
In reference to the fishery’s argument that they had fished on the chalk bed for hundreds of years Mr Spray said it took a lifetime to notice changes.
He also said equipment and boats used to fish had changed over the years and the fishery was not the one it was 50 years ago.
“I think [the fishermen] need to grow up and take an interest in their own fishing grounds, they can’t just say it’s fine because they’ve always done it.
“They know so little about how they act on the fishery. They have not got the grounds to claim they are sustainable,” he said.
Mr Spray said he believed there was a future for the fishing industry but changes in approach were needed: “There’s a place for a fishing industry if they can understand the sea bed and evolve into a sustainable fishery, then that will happen.
“For me the priority is the wildlife and natural habitat. If we were talking to farmers and saying you’re going to have to change, they would change and we saw that decades ago with overuse of pesticides.”
What Natural England says
When asked to address the concerns raised by the fishing community, especially in regards to the findings of the 2020 report and the constraints it may put on fishing practices, NE said it was working with EIFCA, the body which will enact any management.
Georgina Roberts, marine senior advisor for NE, said: “We fully recognise the concerns raised which is why we continue to work with the EIFCA, partners and local fishermen to seek a way forward that will protect this precious marine habitat and enable a sustainably harvested fishery for years to come.
“The 2020 report is just one example of the work we are undertaking to improve our understanding of this site, and by being involved in forthcoming research fishermen have a chance to ensure the best evidence can be gathered in a transparent way.”
The History of the Fishery
People have fished for crabs and lobsters off the coast of Cromer for more than 300 years and the industry is a key part of the town's identity and heritage.
There are no records of exactly when fishing for crabs in Cromer began but it is believed to have started in the early 18th century.
In the 19th century, fishermen fished for a lot more than crabs and were recorded bringing in whelks, herrings, cod, plaice, skate and shrimps.
They used traditional double-ended broad-beamed vessels powered by sail or oars which were eventually replaced by engines and smaller, lighter and faster boats.
Crabs and lobsters were originally caught using hoop nets which were dropped into the sea then hauled up by hand. Crab pots, variations of which are still used today, were introduced to the fishery in the early 19th century.