Why Filey's fishermen fear they may be the last generation to cast their nets

Fishing has provided an income for successive generations in Filey, but those currently throwing their nets out at sea tell Mike Warner why they fear they might be the last to land a catch. Main picture by Richard Ponter.

The salmon fishermen of Filey on Cobble Landing. Chatting by the nets .Fishermen, Matthew Wilkins, Jamie Richardson,Yogi Cammish,dog Jack,and Rex Harrison. Picture by Richard Ponter.

Standing on the cliffs above Filey Brigg and looking across the dramatic curve of the bay towards Flamborough Head, the small area of sea below me looks every bit the picturesque and tranquil image that has greeted generations of visitors and holidaymakers to this alluring and most genteel North Yorkshire seaside town.

However, beneath the gently lapping waves that perpetually crest up the pristine sands of the beach towards the hauled-up fishing boats lurks a catch, the custody of which, is driving local fishermen to despair.

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The fishermen have come under increasing pressure not to catch salmon, a wild species that swims with the sea trout and is, at times, unavoidably netted. Having once been a lucrative and seasonal by-catch of the sea trout fishery for these hardy souls, recent changes to their licences will mean that all salmon are now to be released at source and none to be landed.

Lifelong fisherman Rex Harrison explains that this in itself is not a problem for the “Filey Few” as they are not their main quarry and with recent adaptations to their gear, virtually all salmon that end up in their traditional North Yorkshire “J nets” can be released alive unharmed, logged and even tagged, providing a vital snapshot of the population’s health, recorded and relayed to the authorities in real-time data.

It is interesting to note too that the average salmon catch for all the boats for the last ten years amounted to just 157 fish, compared with nearly 5,000 sea trout landed.

“We fish very traditional gear from our small dinghies or cobles, the design of which has not really changed much over the years,” says Harrison. “Also, in order to comply with the terms of our yearly renewable licence, we’re only allowed to fish from Monday to Friday, from April to August, and then only between the hours of 6am and 5pm. The sea trout we’re targeting start running from late April onwards and are our single most important catch. Stock numbers are very healthy and because of improvements in net design, with a bigger mesh size and the way we operate, no juveniles are ever landed and that means true selectivity at source.”

Improvements in catch selection and by-catch reduction are not enough, however, to stem the tide of opposition that these fiercely proud and committed local men face. A vocal angling lobby argues that this handful of seasonal netsmen are depriving them of stock for the many rivers, tributaries and associated spawning grounds that get fished day in, day out throughout the salmon fishing season, often from February to October.

According to recent communications from the Environment Agency, which issues the licences, it’s unclear whether after 2019, this small band of wild hunters and their colleagues from neighbouring Bridlington and Scarborough will be able to continue with their low-impact and artisan way of life.

A reluctance to manage their longevity and a lack of resources and funding to monitor their activity means that overnight, the face of the seafront at Filey could change forever, bringing with it a serious socio-economic impact for the town.

“If we’re forced out of business, then a light will be extinguished, never to be relit,” warns Harrison. “The netsmen of Filey have been the lifeblood of the community here for successive generations and even though we only number six now compared with the 14 that used to exist, our importance to the incomes of countless local businesses, through just being a tourist attraction, is unquestionable.”

Filey is a strong community-focused town at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds, with the spectacular Bempton Cliffs stretching away to the south-east, in a Jurassic, limestone band of white that plays host to half a million seabirds, including razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and the largest “gannetry” in mainland England.

Established as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the 5km of cliffs are protected in an extensive and accessible nature reserve managed by the RSPB that allows thousands of visitors to experience a cacophonous, wheeling and whirling spectacle between April and October. In recent years, the Filey fishermen have worked closely with the RSPB, adapting both their fishing gear and routines to avoid ensnaring any of the teeming birdlife that dives beneath the waves, feeding on the masses of sand eels the fish are hunting.

“We made such significant progress in reducing avian by-catch that our methods have been adopted by fishermen all over the world,” says Harrison. “We even visited the American salmon fishery in Seattle to gain experience from pioneering techniques on seabird avoidance. However, going one stage further, we now only fish here in the bay; no longer under the cliffs, on just a tiny footprint of sea, thereby avoiding the birds altogether.”

With the clock ticking for these coastal artisans, time is of the essence to demonstrate their value, not just to the local population, but to the wider Yorkshire community and beyond, who love to holiday in Filey. Many return year after year to soak up the atmosphere down on the Cobble Landing by the beach, where they’ll find Rex and his fishermen friends going about their business in what’s more of a working museum than a commercial operation.

Local MP Kevin Hollinrake, who is supporting their case, says that once the fishermen’s licences expire it is the Environment Agency’s intention not to renew them. This is true not just for the Filey cohort, but all the netters from the Humber to the Tyne, a slowly diminishing band with little voice and the odds heavily stacked against them.

“We must find a solution, even if there ends up being a compromise,” he says. “It’s not just the fishermen that will suffer here, it will impact across the whole community. Tourism plays a crucial part in the local economy of this coastline and visitors flock to these historic fishing ports just to breathe in the atmosphere, soak up the history and buy local produce. Once the fishermen go, you end up with an imbalance which will directly affect the region’s prosperity.”

Impact too for the Filey RNLI station, safeguarding the waters here since 1804.

One of the fishermen’s sons, Neil Camish, is next in line to succeed on the current lifeboat as coxswain, although with his father’s netting licence now rendered non-transferable and with little hope of keeping up the family tradition, the prospects for continuing the watch of safe eyes, with a wealth of local maritime experience now appear woefully slim. Harrison is worried that an ignorance of the facts could spell disaster for this close-knit community. “If the salmon and sea trout were in decline, I could accept it,” he adds. “But they’re not, far from it. The Environment Agency surveys themselves have shown that all the way up the North Sea coast catch numbers have either increased or remained static for the last ten years. There are fish there to catch.

“We fish seasonally and now with the lightest touch on the environment you could imagine. I want my grandchildren to be able to fish here in the same way as I’ve always done, but right now that looks increasingly unlikely.”

What has taken generations to build and nurture, they argue, should be allowed to continue and prosper, affording future sons and daughters of Filey the opportunity to not just enjoy the fruits of their labours as true wild hunters but to ensure the vitality and integrity of their communities.

It will be a sorry day indeed if such a rich and irreplaceable heritage ends up being squandered and such a time-honoured profession sacrificed on the altar of political and economic expediency.

A petition to protect Filey’s fishermen is now online at Change.org via the link http://bit.ly/2sABmxI