Gareth Stevens investigates the state of the Hastings & Rye fishing fleet

Once you set aside the obvious historical battle that is at the heart of our town’s outward identity, I am sure like me you think of the fishing boats and their accompanying iconic black-cladded net shops when you reflect on what best signifies the heart and soul of Hastings.

Hastings’ artisanal fishing community has the largest shore-launched fishing fleet in Europe. The town has the oldest tradition of active vessels under ten metres in length in the UK and is unique in that the fishing ‘port’ intermingles in proximity with all the other tourist attractions we have to offer. Although the Stade is a distinctly working ‘industrial’ place, it is also picturesque and very ‘instagrammable’. It is only when you get inside the winch huts and speak to the people that work there that you come to realise just how much of a utilitarian and work-a-day environment it is. 

The Stade, 2014 by John Cole

At odds with the camera-friendly nature of the boats and net shops, few are aware of the added dangers and difficulties of having to fish without the haven of a protective harbour. Weather windows are tighter when you have to launch and winch boats from and up onto an exposed shore and, whilst boats using Rye harbour can slip their moorings and be out at sea in minutes, the job of launching from the Stade is both time consuming and hazardous.

Although we anecdotally hear that fishing boats have set sail from Hastings for hundreds and hundreds of years, I was unexpectedly surprised to actually meet several fishermen whose families and forbears had been in the trade for generations. This really is an ancient tradition that runs very deep in this town and which gives us a direct link to its past.

Henry Adams, 1991 by John Cole

I met with Paul Joy who leads Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society. When speaking with him, it wasn’t long before his encyclopedic understanding of the Common Fisheries Policy, EU regulations, quotas, etc, began to confuse me. He was clear and helpful, but it just did not make sense. Subsequent reading on my part heightened my sense of injustice and led me to think that what I had previously thought to be a clichéd and unfounded opinions about burdensome EU ‘red tape’ were perhaps true.

Despite over 74% of all fishing boats in the UK being under ten metres in length they are only ascribed 3% of the annual catch quota. The ‘under tens’ also provide half the jobs in the UK fishing industry.

Over a quarter of the UK’s fishing quota (around 29%) is held by just five families and more than two thirds of the UK’s fishing quota is given over to just 25 bigger companies. Many of these larger companies have recent track records of illegal ‘black’ landings of fish in excess of their quotas and have ended up in court. The more I researched the more absurd the whole situation seems. The commodification of quotas and licenses has allowed continental ‘quota hoppers’ to buy into UK fishing, and the larger companies have not only enjoyed the lion’s share of opportunities, but have had a more powerful influence on government policy in ways that seem to take little account of the needs of fishing communities the scale of which is similar to that of Hastings.

Mark and Jamie Ball, 2018 by John Cole

Up until 2006 smaller boats were not accountable under the quota scheme and all that was required by the EU was an estimate of their landings. Since then they have often been assigned quotas that have made it even more difficult for them to make a living. The feeling amongst these smaller family led fishing businesses is that, whilst securing a more equitable system for UK fishing was used as a leading issue during the 2016 Brexit campaign (and which led to a growing support for the move to leave the EU, particularly in coastal communities), there is now a growing fear that the UK government will sacrifice our fishing interests as a concession to win on what are seen as bigger more important issues.

Whilst the existing situation does seem to be unfair, and EU regulations dense and constraining, it is wrong to blame the plight of our local fishing industry on Europe alone. There is definitely a case to answer that our own government has mismanaged the sector and has been out of touch with the real needs of smaller fishing businesses. There is as much of a will to maintain the current system of fishing rights and quotas as there is to ‘take back control’.

Robert Ball, 2017 by John Cole

On top of the increasing uncertainty surrounding Brexit negotiations, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an added layer of pressure on those seeking to make their living through the fishing industry.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Paul Joy tells me that in many ways necessity has been the mother of invention and that the “lockdown” has kick-started new avenues of thought and has forced those involved to prototype ideas and approaches that will provide us with many inventive and productive ways of moving forward whatever the outcomes of leaving the EU may hold for commercial fishing.

Dean Brooker, 1991 by John Cole

Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society has met with local wholesalers such as Chapmans of Rye and Sevenoaks, and other sector stakeholders to discuss ways in which they can reimagine their collective fish marketing strategies. They have considered how they might better market species like cuttlefish, dogfish and other fish that are at present less popular for the home market. Alongside this, they have brainstormed other ways their business can become less reliant on the continental markets. 

Whilst it can be very convenient to buy fish during your weekly shop at the supermarket, this invariably involves the processing of excessive plastic packaging, a larger carbon footprint due to transport within the distribution system and can be tantamount to not supporting the livelihoods of our local fishermen. There has been much speculation that Covid-19 has challenged globalisation and forced us to appreciate the value of localised food production and distribution, and therefore now is the ideal time for us to double down on buying local and contributing to a more sustainable environment.

I for one used my bi-weekly walk from St Leonards to the Old Town to buy fresh fish as part of my lockdown exercise routine. Now I also see it as a responsible way to support our local fishing industry and also a more responsible way to buy fish. Join me in supporting our local fishermen in any way you can.

There is definitely a case government has mismanaged the sector

There is a great need for final Brexit negotiations to safeguard UK fishing rights in concert with the further development of innovative ways to ensure the UK’s fishing industry becomes fair, sustainable and low carbon. Each and every one of us in Hastings has a part to play in this.

A big thank you to John Cole for contributing the photographs for this piece. John has been photographing Hastings’ fishing community ever since the 1990s and plans to publish his work in book form soon. Initial plans to publish ‘Fishing for Generations’ were put on hold because of the Covid-19 lockdown. However, in September he will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding to launch the book.

For more information about the photographer visit: www.johncole.co.uk

Jason and Will Adams, Peter White and Gary Cornelius, 2014 by John Cole


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