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Mentioned Part 48

By: Rob Sedgwick
Date: 23/03/2003

Home > Features > Mentioned > Mentioned #48


"No disrespect to the likes of Grimsby..."

sunday 23rd march

Hell in Hull

By : Finlay Coutts-Britton.

"How can I describe Hull? Take a prosperous and thriving town, a gem of the North East, with a rich maritime industry. Sprinkle it generously with Luftwaffe bombs for a few years until it's heart is a gutted shell. Then kill off its seagoing heritage and plunge its young men and women into generations of soul-destroying unemployment. Then let a bunch of lunatic architects loose in the 1960s and 1970s and apply gallons of concrete.

Hull. What a hole...The streets act as wind tunnels and litter and dogs' messes lie upon the pavements as numerous as grains of sand on a beach."

"I'd seen teenage mums before, but I seriously thought for the first day or two that older sisters in Hull were really nice and helpful for taking their little brothers and sisters out in prams like that."

"There are loads of fish and chip shops, but no fish. Any fish that are brought in by the pathetic fleet of stubborn fishermen are immediately shipped off, they are too valuable for the good people of Hull."

"The silent threat of violence hangs in the air, along with the smell from the chocolate factory. Chocolate factories, by the way, don't smell of chocolate, they smell of death. If the wind comes from the South East it brings the smell of Grimsby docks - enough said. If it comes from the other direction it brings the smell of the tanning factory...rotting carcasses and rancid flesh."

"Hull did teach me one lesson. No matter what happens to me in life, no matter where I live, or how bad things are, I will know that it can never, ever be as bad as living in Hull."

Spotted by Jonathan Parkes.

Dead in the Water

From: The Guardian.

Britain has always had a special relationship with cod - we eat a third of the world's total catch. But as EU ministers cut our quotas once again, the industry is heading towards crisis point. John Vidal goes to Grimsby to meet the men who will suffer most

On a calm day you can smell the cod in Grimsby three miles inland. Not now. A gale force nine is ripping through the streets of the huge old Victorian docks. It lashes the shiny new food processing works, the semi-derelict engineering factories, the chandlers, the ropeworks, landing bays, paintshops and repair yards. It whips up the litter, bends the grass horizontal on the desolate wasteground, and whistles through the broken windows of the old ice works. There's no one out to sea and the water is turbulent even in the main harbour where the Beverley, Soraya, Rachel, Aisha and 30 other small fishing vessels, together with two deep sea trawlers, are lashed together and to the docksides. They are vulnerable and mainly venerable, the remnants of the 300-strong North Sea fishing fleet that was based in Grimsby only 30 years ago.

In this foul weather and confused political climate they are going nowhere. But some time later tonight, if the forecast is better, Billy "the Fish" Hardie, skipper of the 50-tonne Stormy C, will call his three crewmen - Dave, Basher and Gilly - and set off on the 90-mile journey towards the Netherlands and the shoals of cod. The trip will take 20 hours and they will be away for up to eight days.

Hardie will concentrate on the old wrecks where cod congregate at this time of year. He will think like a fish. When the tide is coming in he will drop his gill nets on the side of the wrecks where he knows the cod will be sheltering and feeding off the plankton and smaller fish; and then, when the tide flows out, like them, he will be round the other side. With skill and luck he will avoid the other fishermen and follow the cod's mysterious migrations across the Brown Banks, the Borkum Flats, the Cleaver Bank, the Dogger Bank and the Clay Deep.

But right now Hardie is sitting in a Grimsby bowling club feeling as furious as the weather. European scientists have declared that cod stocks in the North Sea and to the west of Scotland are collapsing because of overfishing. The fish that the British have adopted as part of their culture for more than 100 years are said by conservation groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, to be so rare that in places they are officially an endangered species.

The North Sea, marine scientists say, is in danger of going the way of the Newfoundland Grand Banks. In the 80s it was the world's most fished ground - so much so that fish virtually disappeared and stocks have never fully recovered.

Hardie knows that he and other fishermen in Britain are about to be gutted. They have had plenty of warning. Early this morning EU fisheries ministers meeting in Brussels imposed savage cuts on all EU cod and other North Sea fishing quotas. The cuts will affect the British most. Coming on top of similar cuts in the past two years, it means the virtual end of cod fishing in European waters.

Instead of the Stormy C being allowed to catch 170-plus tonnes of cod next year, Hardie will be limited to just a few tonnes a month - the amount, in better times, he could have caught in a few weeks.

Thirty months ago, Hardie invested almost £250,000 in the Stormy C, its licences and quotas. Today he regrets it. One of the most successful fishermen of his generation, he faces bankruptcy - not for bad management, lack of salesmanship or marketing, nor because subsidies are being phased out, but, he says, simply because he has done exactly what the scientists, the governments and all the other "experts" have told him was necessary to save the cod.

Britain now has 15,000 full-time fishermen, with the industry concentrated in northern Scotland. It has 435 deep sea trawlers and 1,782 inshore vessels such as Hardie's. Most are owned by families, and small groups of friends or partners, and they are the ones who will be hit hardest by the EU cuts.

Cod is their biggest and most valuable catch. The British have a bizarre love affair with the fish. We eat a third of the world's catch and are desperately loyal to the species, unlike the Americans or continental Europeans who are more than happy to eat other fish. We love its moistness and pale taste. But we may not love what is going to happen in the next few months.

Few fishermen, it is widely reckoned, will survive the quota cuts if they last more than a few years. They do not have the option, like farmers, of switching "crops". A cod boat is set up for a certain sort of fishing and would cost tens of thousands of pounds to convert to catching, say, mackerel. Nor can they sell up because no one will buy a boat in such hard times. So far, neither the government nor the EU is offering to pay them not to fish - like they pay farmers to set aside land - or to decommission them completely. Their lifetime investments are worth little and their bank managers are already writing letters.

"It's a ruddy awful mess," Hardie says. "I'm not being greedy and I understand the need for conservation, but I need 170-odd tonnes to make this business viable. This isn't a hobby. If it goes on like this I predict that 70% or more of the entire British fishing fleet will go to the wall. That's the end of Britain as a seafaring nation. It's the end of more communities, more skills. Once the fishing has gone, it will never come back. You will never be able to find crews, set up the infrastructures and start again. That's it."

Hardie has been here before. In the 70s he became, at 21, one of the youngest skippers of a deep sea trawler. Just like his father, also a skipper, he fished from the north of Russia to Greenland and all points in the Atlantic. He took part in the "cod wars" with Iceland and then watched his local MP, Anthony Crosland, who was then a Labour foreign secretary, "give away half of what had until then been British fishing rights".

The fleet was devastated. Grimsby and many other coastal towns never fully recovered. "It used to be pay day every day," he says. "There would be dozens of boats coming in every day, each paying men three or four weeks wages. The town was thriving."

Hardie was jobless and young, so he gambled. He bought a gill netter and learned to fish the North Sea for cod. It paid off. Today he drives a BMW convertible, but not for long, he thinks.

His anger, shared by fishermen in Hull, Petershead and the Scottish ports, is directed mainly at successive governments over the past 20 years. "They have consistently traded off our fishing rights for political advantage in Europe," he says. "What is it about fishing? This is the most risky business in the world. We lose many men every year. We die but we do not complain because that is the culture of fishing. But cannot any British government support us? Tell me why not. Other governments subsidise their fleets, protect their interests. Ours doesn't. Other governments help people invest in new ships. Ours doesn't."

Hardie does not even believe that there is a full-scale crisis in the North Sea. "Fishing has always gone in cycles. There are lots of signs that next year will be better. The scientists only go to certain places. They don't talk to us."

He recognises he sounds like an extremist - which he says he isn't by nature - but admits he is ready now to blockade ports and try to embarrass the government at every point. He believes the public is on the side of the fishermen and there is talk about concentrating direct action efforts to coincide with an election. "They are going to make us bankrupt so we may as well go down fighting. We could stop the Humber by this time tomorrow."

Grimsby will escape the worst, ironically because it was hit so hard after the cod wars. Then it started to turn itself round from a fishing port to a food processing one and now it boasts Heinz, Baxters, Birds Eye, Northern Foods and other food giants such as Bluecoat. The football team is still called the Mariners, but the port is slowly de-linking itself with its fishy past, calling itself "the food town".

It's another matter in Scotland. The Scots catch 60% of British cod and the small fishing ports of Fraserburgh, Scrabster, Mallaig and Lochinver, which have only limited processing facilities and are mostly dependent on the boats, will be the worst hit. The Scottish fishermen's association is scathing about the confusion, lack of scientific certainty and crude operation of the EU's fishing policy. But it is pragmatic about the changes it accepts are necessary.

"Anything less than decommissioning [boats] risks both fish stocks and fishing communities collapsing," says a spokesman. But he predicts real hardship if no acceptable money is made available and the government continues to allow businesses to fail. "It would be very great indeed. The fishing jobs are concentrated in small communities with no alternative economic activity.

"Perhaps the greatest irony [of not decommissioning or compensating fully] would be that the very conservation objectives generating the social dislocation would be completely compromised if fishermen, left to twist in the wind, sought to do what was necessary to pay the bills. Conservation would be the first casualty. Government should bear in mind that fishermen are also an endangered species."

Hardie and others take this to mean that fishermen will carry on fishing and simply duck below the surface to survive. Just like the cod.

Spotted by Jonathan Parkes.

Blundell Park

From: Sh*t Ground, No Fans.

Ahhh, the smell of fish! Blundell Park is in Cleethorpes, not Grimsby, and it is a bit of shed. The joy of wiggling from side to side just to follow the play as it passes behind columns, soon abates. The stewards though were pretty friendly, and could take a jibe or two.

Spotted by Jonathan Parkes.

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