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."

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