An era comes to an end in Yarmouth's proud fishing traditions

Stephen PullingerYarmouth's fishing tradition has a long and proud history. But now the town's last boat-owning full-time fisherman is preparing to hang up his nets, as Stephen Pullinger reports.Stephen Pullinger

Yarmouth's fishing tradition has a long and proud history. But now the town's last boat-owning full-time fisherman is preparing to hang up his nets, as Stephen Pullinger reports.

Two years ago they became unlikely symbols of the sad decline of Great Yarmouth's once great fishing industry. In a port that was once home to so many fishing boats you could walk across the river on them, brothers Jason and Richard Clarke of nearby Sea Palling defiantly remained as full-time fishermen. However the story poignantly moved on earlier this year when father of two Richard, aged 38, left the family partnership - and a Clarke tradition of fishing going back four generations - to work on a boat servicing windfarms. Early next year Jason, 39, will reluctantly follow in his brother's footsteps, leaving the industry he confesses in his blood, not because of the unsocial hours, bitter winters or rough seas, but because of the frustrations of EU fishing quotas. Jason's announcement comes in the week when EU ministers meeting in Brussels will decide on quotas for 2010 with British fisheries minister Huw Arranca-Davies bleakly warning that this year's negotiations are likely to be 'tougher than ever'.

Jason who has worked at sea for 22 years said: 'It is an absolute farce and I have had enough of it. I don't want to give up but there is only so much you can take. I will miss the fishing but it has been ruined by bureaucracy.

'The boats needs to make �2,000 a week to make it pay and you can't get anywhere near that because of the restrictions. I'm looking forward to my new job but it is still sad for me and the family, after four generations of fishing. I have been forced out by Brussels. It is sad for the town too.'

Jason stressed that the quota of cod, their most profitable fish, was so small for the under 10 metre fleet, that even if it went up slightly next year as expected it would make little difference.

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He said: 'Our cod quota for December was only 300kg and we caught that in only two hours on the first day of the month. It does your head in. We don't want to make a fortune just make a living.

'We are allowed to catch some skate at the moment, but in fishing for that we have to throw back all the cod we are catching even if they are dead.'

The quota system was introduced by Brussels following concerns about dwindling fish stocks but Jason said from his own observations he believed the populations were very healthy.

He said: 'If I was leaving because there was no fish out there it would be easier but that is not the case. Fish stocks over the past two years have been very good. That is what really breaks your spirit.'

Jason insisted that all fishermen were in favour of conservation but the quota system was just a bureaucratic mess.

'It will be better to have the system where you are restricted to a certain number of days at sea each year but allowed to keep everything you catch,' he said.

Jason, who is preparing to hire out the family boat Eventide to his present crew Richard Brookin, 31, questioned whether there would be any full time fishermen left in the longer term.

He said: 'There are not that many part-timers. There are no youngsters coming up who would get involved in fishing now.'

While in his father's day the Yarmouth fleet had already declined to a handful of boats, his grandfather had recounted to him stories about a time when the harbour was packed. The heyday of the industry had even been before his grandfather's time, a century ago, when the prosperity was based on herring , also know as silver darlings.

However over fishing in the 1920s and changing fashions - a preference for white fish - decimated the industry. Since the 1980s the 20 or so boats remaining had steadily given up in the face of the demoralising quota system.

Nikki Hale, chief executive of the Eastern England Fish Producers Association, described it as 'heartbreaking and disgusting' that EU legislation had pushed the Clarke family to this decision.

She said that while Yarmouth had been synonymous with fishing, it was not just a local problem - quotas being proposed for next year were likely to drive even more boats out of business across the country.

Mr Brookin, of Kings Street, Yarmouth, has been fishing on and off all his life and has no illusions about the challenge he faces in taking over the Clarkes' boat.

He admitted the quota system 'was heartbreaking' but said they would be investing in new fishing gear and focusing more on shellfish, including lobsters, not subject to quotas.

Talks on fishing quotas are going on this week in Brussels.

A Defra spokesman said Defra want to see a radical reform of common fishing policy to help fishermen deal with cyclical nature of the industry. 'We have sympathy for the Yarmouth fishermen. The quotas are something we want to see addressed in reform of common fishing policy.

'We want everything to be discussed in the reform of common fishing policy in support our fishing industry.'

The spokesman added that any new quotas should go hand-in-hand with work to conserve fish stocks.