View Full Version : End of era nears for once-great fishing port

Davie Tait
13th January 2010, 20:44


Once Great Yarmouth was a world-famous herring fishing port which was home to 10,000 fishermen each autumn.

They came from all around to get a share of the riches which were being hauled out of the waters off the Norfolk coast in huge quantities.

But now the 1,000-strong fishing fleet is long gone, as is the sea of baskets filled with herring which once crowded the docks.

Now Great Yarmouth has just one full-time professional fisherman and later this year he will turn his back on the industry he loves because of falling prices and strict quotas.

When Jason Clarke took up professional fishing 22 years ago, he looked forward to spending the rest of his working life earning a living from the sea off Great Yarmouth.

Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, uncles and brother, his was to be a life lived at sea.

"If you're a fisherman you've got to have it in your blood. I just didn't ever want to do anything else," Mr Clarke said from the quay where he moors his boat, the Eventide.

It was an incredible scene at Yarmouth to see the ships landing and horse carts being taken down to be filled
Ronnie King, former fisherman

In Pictures: Herring fishing

"It is a lovely way of life. But I've just had my fill of it - I never thought I'd hear myself saying it. It's all I thought I would do."

The 39-year-old's reluctant decision to stop work as a full-time fisherman marks the end of a tradition in Great Yarmouth which goes back centuries.

Historians say fishermen first inhabited the spit of land, formed by silt deposited at the mouth of the rivers Bure, Waveney and Yare, in the 13th Century.

But it was when schools of herring started to come closer to shore on their annual migration that Great Yarmouth found itself transformed into a world fishing capital.

The fishery was at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. By 1913 the Great Yarmouth fleet had grown to 1,000 and, with 10 men crewing each boat, 10,000 worked the fishery.

Another 5,000 "fisher-girls" - mostly from Scotland - gutted the fish once they were landed.

Jason Clarke
Jason Clarke says fish stocks around Great Yarmouth are in good shape

Ronnie King, 86, started fishing in 1937 when he was 14.

"It was an incredible scene at Yarmouth to see the ships landing and horse carts being taken down to the ships to be filled," said Mr King, who now lives in the nearby village of Ormesby St Michael.

"It was a huge industry."

Watching from the banks of the river Yare, Bob Burman spent much of his childhood entranced by the comings and goings of the fishermen.

His grandfather was a trawlerman on a sailing barge, his father was a box maker for the fishing industry and his mother sold oil skins to the fishermen.

"On Saturdays we would go down to the fish wharf to get fish for free. Any that fell on to the floor the kids would get them," Mr Burman, now 62, said.

"The atmosphere was unbelievable."

It's very sad for all our family but (they) know it's the right thing for me to do because it's been so stressful
Jason Clarke

But, like in many fisheries, advances in fishing techniques meant Great Yarmouth's days of prosperity were numbered.

Sailing drifters were replaced with more modern steam-powered vessels and new types of nets allowed fewer fish to get away.

Mr King said: "It got so that one ship could catch as many fish as 50 drifters could in one night."

Not only were the fishing techniques decimating stock numbers, herring also began to fall out of favour with buyers.

Birdseye set up a plant in Great Yarmouth in about 1950 and the huge success of the humble fish finger meant herring was no longer as popular.

About 30 Scottish boats fish most of the quota allocated now but the domestic herring market is almost non-existent.

Ronnie King
Ronnie King said changes to catching methods led to a collapse in stocks

Mr Clarke, from Sea Palling on the Norfolk coast, has long relied on other species, such as cod, to make a living but he has continued to catch a small amount of herring.

Strict quotas on other species have combined to make it too hard to make ends meet, Mr Clarke, who keeps his boat in Gorleston, which neighbours Great Yarmouth, said.

"Boats aren't cheap to run, it's just made it impossible," he added.

So now he is leaving one of the region's oldest industries to move into one of its newest - wind energy.

Mr Clarke intends to keep fishing in his spare time - he maintains stock levels are high - but it will no longer be his main occupation.

In his new job, which he expects to start in the summer, he will spend his working week ferrying turbine engineers out to the Greater Gabard wind farm on fast catamarans.

"It's very sad for all our family but (they) know it's the right thing for me to do because it's been so stressful," he said.

Mr Burman, a guide on the Lydia Eva, a restored steam drifter which now serves as a museum for the herring fishery, said: "It is a sad situation when you consider the buzz we once had in Yarmouth.

"It was the greatest herring fishing port in the world."