Suffolk discovers bright side of empty-net syndrome

It's a curious Catch 22: the collapse of British fishing stocks has put so many trawlermen out of business that those who survive face a glut.

The skies above the port at Lowestoft are busy by early afternoon, as the seagulls wait for the boats to come in. The scavengers start squawking early in the country's easternmost town, which is the first in England to greet the rising sun.

But while they pinch the odd scrap outside the industrial units that make up the fish market, their shrieking is largely futile – the port is all but deserted.

Malcolm Bullen cuts a lonely figure as he sits on a pallet in the sun. The filleter started work here as a teenage barrow boy 45 years ago. The seagulls were louder and fatter back then. "At this time of day, this would have been jam-packed with lorries," the 67-year-old says. "We had four or five gangs of lumpers – 12 men to a gang – just to unload the boats. But now there's hardly any boats to unload."

At the other side of the market, Waveney Dock is calm. Terry Wightman, a fisherman, is waiting at the dockside for his boat to chug between the north and south piers of the harbour. His eldest son, Spencer, is here too, ready to land the catch while his brothers, Steve and Chris, return from their fishing grounds 15 miles off the Suffolk coast. Terry would be happier to be at sea, but he's 74 and has trouble with his legs. "If I was a horse they'd have put me out in a field by now," he says.

The Wightmans are the last crew of fishermen making a living here. Half a dozen or so day boats still land catches in Lowestoft but most of those are manned by part-timers. "There used to be so many boats here you could walk from one side of the dock to the other," says Terry, who lives with the rest of the family in nearby Aldeburgh.

If the temperature of Britain's fishing industry can be taken at Lowestoft, the prognosis is gloomy. The town flourished after the railway came in the late 19th century, becoming one of the country's most vigorous and prosperous ports. Merchants built mansions with terraced gardens and men were brought in from as far away as Scotland to catch, fillet and box the prodigious herring. The good times continued for decades but, today, the tiny fleet is close to sinking. "I never thought I'd see it like this," Terry says.

It would be easy to presume diminishing fish stocks are to blame for the slow death of ports such as Lowestoft, whose plight is replicated around Britain. Scientific studies and a string of recent documentaries have given many observers the impression that the waters around Britain have been stripped of life by generations of greedy fishermen. Last Tuesday, a team of scientists at the University of York published a study of British fish stocks spanning 118 years, and concluded their decline is "far more profound than previously thought".

Maximus, the Wightman family's boat, hoves into view soon after 3pm, after almost 10 hours at sea. Spencer, who is 43, readies the crane while his father clutches two cans of Vimto for his younger sons. Soon, blue and yellow plastic crates start to pile up on the dockside, bearing hundreds of glistening cod. "It's been an exceptional day," Chris shouts from the boat, which bobs higher on the water as the last of the crates is lifted ashore. "We've got all these scientists and politicians telling us there's no fish in the sea but we're catching more than we've ever caught."

If today's catch is exceptional, then so are the Wightmans – and their survival in a town where fishermen are more endangered than the fish underlies the paradox of an industry on the brink. Boats such as Maximus are heavily limited in what they can catch by quotas set according to the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy. As the only crew here who are members of a regional producer organisation, the Wightmans can lease quota from other members, many of whom exist for the purpose. Today the family has caught one and a half tons of cod, which should sell for £4,000. The last independent crews who fish here are allowed to catch a third of that amount in a month. "Nobody can live off that," Chris says.

But membership doesn't bring riches – the Wightmans say that between a third and a half of the value of today's catch will go towards leasing quota. That's before the overheads: diesel, insurance, squid for bait and the shed they use to store their lines. "I've never earned so much as the minimum wage in my life," Terry Wightman says. "We get chicken feed."

Fishermen earning less still, meanwhile, have been forced to find other work. Many have abandoned their boats, while some return to the port occasionally just for the love of it, on a good day catching their monthly quota in a single morning. The Wightmans have the run of the fishing grounds, which they say are teeming with life, but, "how much work can three men do," asks Chris, who regularly puts in 60-hour weeks.

The fishing community here can't see any sense in quotas, which are set to become stricter in the next year. "If we went out every day and struggled to catch anything, I'd put my hands up and say, fair enough, time to do another job," Chris says, surveying the boxes. "But look at all this."

Scientists argue that apparent growth in stocks in some areas masks the bigger picture. "We're not saying the sea is empty of fish," says Simon Brockington, the head of conservation at the Marine Conservation Society and co-author of the University of York study. "But our paper shows there are nothing like as many as there should be."

If fishermen must wait for stocks to increase, the Wightmans say it will be too late. Chris, who is 34, wants to retire a fisherman. "But it's hard to see it because if this carries on there'll be nothing left here," he says. "We're barely hanging on by the skin of our teeth now. Even if things improved, nobody's going to have the money to start up again." In the meantime, commercial operators and European boats fill the gap in supply.

The few men still working here feel as if they are being locked out by a government that neither understands nor values their trade. Bit by bit, the Port of Lowestoft is being sold to a Scottish energy company building the world's largest wind farm 15 miles out to sea. As Chris walks through the open gates of the base on a tour of what used to be part of the harbour, a man wearing a high-visibility jacket and hard hat runs out of his new office. "What are you doing here – you can't just walk on to our base." Before Chris turns and rejoins his father and brothers, when the gates are swiftly locked behind him, he looks at the spotless helipad to his right, then back at the man, who won't offer his name. "This concrete was poured over herrings' scales," he says. "There'd be nothing here if it wasn't for us."

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on