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Another year, another battle over the future of Bridlington harbour. So, says Chris Berry, what does the future really hold for the coastal town?

Bridlington Harbour is the one place that everyone visits when they go to the town and it’s also where battle lines have been drawn for years in a quest to wrestle power from the harbour commissioners. The council wants to build a new hotel and car park complex and the owners want to keep the status quo. Last year the latest public inquiry once again fell in favour of the current incumbents.

It is arguably the seaside town’s biggest attraction and perhaps surprisingly to many it holds the titles of largest shellfish landing port in England and largest lobster landing port in Europe, with a total fishing catch valued at £5.7m in 2011. Holidaymakers are entranced by both the commercial and pleasure boat operations.

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The Port of Bridlington is not owned or managed by the council. It is a Trust Port, of which there are around 40 in the UK that are independently-run and the rift that has developed between the harbour and the council has been a long-running issue.

Dennis Jewitt is one of 12 Harbour Commissioners. He’s a Bridlington-born retired fisherman who recalls the days when the town’s fishing fleet was still hauling in cod and haddock in significant quantity, rather than today being the main crustacean landing port in the UK.

He talks of the council’s fight to take control costing the harbour £1m to defend and maintain its position over the past 10 years.

“In all my time the council has tried to take it over because it’s the only thing they don’t own in the town. All the tourists make for here and they are fascinated by things all around the harbour, including the hoist for lifting fishing vessels.

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“We’re not a drain on the rates because by not being a council-run operation all harbour profits are put back into the running of the port. We’re very successful and are a major part of the local economy. Around 400 people are dependent on jobs all around the harbour.”

The Bridlington shell fishing fleet consists of 45 commercial fishing vessels working over lobster pots in peak season between June and October. Many of them work up to 60 miles offshore for three to five days at a time and two have large seawater tanks, called viviers, which keep the shellfish alive and fresh until landing.

It’s a very different life to when Dennis, now 75, used to sail out into the harshness of the North Sea.

“When I sailed you had a map and a compass, that was your navigation, nothing more in the fog and the snow. Now you can pick up something like a pencil and find out exactly where you are regardless of weather conditions. Life’s a lot simpler.

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“The shipping waters around the coast had a lot more traffic too. You would have colliers’ ships from Newcastle carrying coals to London and trawlers from Hull and Grimsby. Today you can go to the cliffs at Flamborough Head where the lighthouse is situated and look out 30 miles and not see a single boat.

“There was a time when we would sail out around 100 miles from here ‘pair trawling’, that’s where two boats travel with a net between them and we did quite well mixed fishing with that. Of course the government then started screwing us down on quotas and where you could and couldn’t land. Now you can only have so many days at sea and there are designated ports for landing fish. The nearest white fish landing port around here is at Scarborough.

“When we were young, fishing was a very poor living but whilst there are still lots of issues the overall fishing lifestyle has improved.

“Everybody used to know everyone else in the harbour and it was a great community, but now I would say I only know about five per cent of the people here. My brother-in-law’s lads go out to sea now.

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“Crews that sailed together stayed together for years. I remember being laid low with gout when I was in my 20s, so we took on a lad called Scott who was meant to be with us just for a fortnight. He stayed with the crew for 27 years.”

Today Dennis is a director of Bridlington Shellfish. He doesn’t go out to sea any longer as he retired 10 years ago, after suffering a stroke. The company’s boats, manned by a crew of four, go out as far as 30-50 miles and stay out for up to three days catching lobsters and crabs.

But Bridlington Harbour isn’t all about fishing catches, it has a formidable reputation as a centre for pleasure boating too and Bridlington Bay, sheltered from northerly winds thanks to Flamborough Head, is widely regarded as the best venue for yacht racing on the east coast.

Neil Newby is another of the 12 and his involvement with the harbour has largely been on the north pier, which is where the pleasure craft berth.

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“My granddad came here from Great Yarmouth as a 14-year-old. He came with his two brothers. They jumped ship and finished in Bridlington. My father was a fisherman in the winter like Dennis, but in the summer he would switch to pleasure boats.

“Pleasure boat rides were massively popular here after the Second World War and at one time there were half a dozen like the Yorkshire Belle that still sails today. There was The Yorkshireman from Hull and one called Thornwick that is now on the Thames. It all started falling away in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The miners’ strike had a big impact. At one time miners and steelworkers would come here in their droves and go out in fishing cobbles. Bridlington is no longer somewhere people come for a fortnight, or a month in the summer, it’s just a daytripper’s resort and that’s a crying shame. It means that the pleasure trips are usually over by six o’clock.

“I’ve retired now and it is my nephew who runs the pirate ship. At one time we were as thick as the corn in the field with pleasure boats, but many of them have now gone.”

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Far from wallowing in any self-pity about past glories, Bridlington Harbour has much to cheer itself. Its status as a shellfish port is beyond question and its pleasure boating side is not at all on a downer, it is actually doing very well, but it is a different kind of boating. Private vessels from yachts to catamarans are berthed here and provide the town with arguably its most colourful scene, and last year new pontoons were added to the harbour. These have given the harbour a much fuller look, while so far being simply a reallocation of existing berths.

Margaret Hyland is the chief executive of the harbour commissioners and has worked at the harbour since 1988. She believes Bridlington Harbour is flourishing at present.

“The new pontoons have been a great success and have added a new vibrancy to the harbour. We are now contemplating putting in more to create further berths for our extensive waiting list. We have a new fishing vessel prospectively coming this year, from a young man in the West Riding, and another of our existing fishermen is having a new catamaran built in Blyth. That kind of news gives all of us increased confidence in the long term future here.

‘The harbour’s revenue comes from a 4.3 per cent levy on the value of the gross catch so when the fishermen get a good price so do we. But we also earn from the berths and we have car parks, a hotel, restaurant, public toilets and a chandlery. They all contribute to the livelihood of the harbour.

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“We’re not serious developers here, even though we have converted what was once an RAF building. We’re here to run the harbour as best we can. The fishing side still contributes around 50 per cent of our income and the knock-on effects of that is that they also pay to use the hoist, buy ice and salt, and lease warehouses.

“From our point of view the shellfish industry is better than the trawler days. It has really taken off. We had some heady days 10-12 years ago when whelks were being sold to Korea, but the lobster and crab market is now number one by a 
long way.”

Laurence Porter is the harbour superintendent. He served in the Merchant Navy for 14 years but was discharged after two spinal operations. As he puts it, he’s the man at the coalface taking care of any problems and making sure everyone goes about their business properly. He is particularly clear about why the harbour is doing so well.

“The new pontoons have worked really well, but it’s not just that. In the last 10 years everything has changed for the better here. We now have a great deal more visiting craft and this is a wonderful place to work.

“This is an old harbour so it does need maintenance, but the better we do, the more can be done.”