Plans to save the seas off Norfolk coast could be in for a choppy ride

Chris Bishop Fishermen boycotted talks with the government's new conservation group, as it begins drawing up plans to save our seas. Under the waves, the clock is ticking.

Chris Bishop

Fishermen boycotted talks with the government's new conservation group, as it begins drawing up plans to save our seas. Under the waves, the clock is ticking. Chris Bishop reports.

When you look at how we've treated them, it's a miracle there's any life left in some of our oceans.

A century ago, the North Sea teemed with life. Trawlers steamed into Lowestoft with bulging nets of cod. Silver darlings sparked a gold rush for Yarmouth.

Today fish and fish-wives are almost a thing of the past in both ports, as catches plummet. Barely one per cent of the sea around our coasts was protected in any way shape or form 10 years ago, when the World Wide Fund for Nature warned that cod were in danger of extinction.

Now all that could change. Marine sanctuaries are being created under new legislation. A single agency - the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is being formed to police them.

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Consultation is now under way to identify sites which require special protection. Net Gain, the body carrying out the exercise along the sprawling coastline of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, is a partnership whose ruling body is made up of members representing commercial fishing, sea angling, conservation groups and water sports.

Talks are likely to continue until the end of next year. Proposals for marine conservation zones will then be published. Fish spawning grounds and nursery areas are obvious candidates.

As well as protecting endangered species, conservationists want to protect examples of typical habitats. While Net Gain wants to engage with the fishing industry and bring it on board, there are those within the industry who fear more red tape will finally sink it.

Virtually unique, The Wash is likely to feature high on the conservation agenda. Recent years have seen a resurgence of the shellfish trade, fuelled in part by the gastro pub boom on the trendy North Norfolk Coast, in part by advances in importing seed mussels from elsewhere to be grown on.

More akin to farming than fishing, the mussel fishery is sustainable. The bulk of the catch is consumed within a few miles of where the boats land.

But fishermen are competing for space with wind farms and the cabling which carries their power ashore. And many fear the turbines' seemingly unstoppable march around our coastline will deprive them of anywhere to fish, as developers plonk them slap in the middle of the best fishing grounds.

They have long memories at the Fisher Fleet in King's Lynn. Some families have worked the seas for centuries. Most recall a lengthy public enquiry held at Boston three years ago, at which conservation groups blocked a bid for bird scarers to be placed near mussel beds, to frighten the eider ducks away.

Some blame the explosion in razor fish for a decline in native cockles and mussels. When Lynn boats began harvesting the species a decade ago, they were stopped by Natural England - before it emerged that the razor fish were an invasive American species, which had been transferred to our shores in ships' bilge water.

“There's nothing left out in The Wash,” said Roy Bagley, who has fished the estuary for 45 years. “It's near enough empty now.

“The cockles have had a big die-off. The scientists are on the job but they don't know why.”

Around The Wash, the word on the quaysides is the fishermen now feel so disenfranchised that they will not take part in the consultation.

“Why should we,” added Mr Bagley. “All they want to do is take everything away from us. The windmills have taken where the mussel seed is, we're being pushed into a corner and we'll soon have nowhere left.”

Living Seas - a manifesto for safeguarding the marine environment, published by Britain's 47 wildlife trusts - says the advent of coastal conservation zones will make the turning point towards a sustainable seafood industry.

Brendan Joyce, director of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said: “It's an unfortunate starting point for the fishermen. They've got to be an integral part of this process, it's got to be about bringing everyone together and moving things forward.

“Fishermen have to accept that their industry has in the past caused damage to the marine environment and the fish themselves. It's in the fishermen's interest to see stocks become sustainable.”

Mr Joyce said the trust had no plans at present to campaign for further conservation zones in The Wash.

“We can think of two or three areas around the coast which are pretty important for all kinds of species,” said Mr Joyce. “Two of them are wrecks which have become ecosystems in their own rights. We would want the equivalent of an SSSI within those areas.”

Other conservation groups - such as Natural England - may have other ideas.

Now or never. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Such is the spin being used to convince so-called stakeholders in the sea to take their place around the table. So far, the glossy brochures have failed to convince the fishermen.

“We're not going to their meetings, we're absolutely sick of all the red tape,” said Ken Bagley, chairman of the Boston Fishermen for 35 years.

“We've had ground taken off us by the wind farms, Natural England, the MoD, the birdy boys. When they rang me up, I told them we're the endangered species; where have we got left to fish?”