Norfolk fishermen boycott coast meeting

Chris BishopFishermen last night boycotted a meeting with North Sea conservationists - after prosecutions collapsed against two King's Lynn skippers accused of dredging cockles on a sandbank closed to fishing.Chris Bishop

Fishermen last night boycotted a meeting with North Sea conservationists - after prosecutions collapsed against two King's Lynn skippers accused of dredging cockles on a sandbank closed to fishing.

The victory came as officials were on their way to Lynn town hall, to begin an 18-month consultation exercise over marine conservation zones in and around The Wash.

Further meetings are planned for Lowestoft today.

Leaders of the government's Net Gain project said they had come to meet anyone with an interest in the sea, to give them a 'once in a lifetime' chance to shape its future.

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But John Lake, boss of Lynn-based John Lake Shellfish, said: 'We're boycotting the meeting> None of the fishermen are going.

'We've got wind farms, sand extraction, cable routes.

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'We've got nowhere left to fish: people don't seem to understand there's nothing left out there for the fishermen. We're getting swamped with people wanting ground, and everything's being taken from us.

'Natural England have got no-go areas designed for The Wash. What else is going to come out of the cupboard?'

Mr Lake's grandson Lee Lake was one of those at court yesterday. He feared he would have to remortgage his home to pay for his defence, but the case against him for illegal fishing collapsed at King's Lynn magistrates yesterday morning, after four days of evidence.

'This whole case was driven by the conservationists,' said Mr Lake Jnr, whose family have fished in The Wash for more than a century.

'If they get their way there won't be much fishing left. Things don't look good in The Wash unless something's done about it.'

Last week similar charges were dropped against fellow skipper Gregory Campbell, who has now left The Wash to work on off-shore wind farms.

'It's been 18 months' worry for me and my wife but justice has been done,' he said. 'I had to sell my boat to raise the funds to fight the case.

'You have a total allowed catch for the whole of The Wash but they only open one sandbank. It's getting beyond stupidity, they're putting fishermen out of business.'

After the hearing Natural England, which brought the case with the Eastern Sea Fisheries Joint Committee, said: 'We are disappointed that it has not been possible to proceed further with the cases we had brought. We will continue to work with ESFJC to ensure that evidence of illegal fishing activities is thoroughly looked at.'

Fishermen speculate the cost of the two prosecutions will run into six figures. But Natural England said it could not confirm the amount.

Conservation plans are being drawn up for each area of Britain's coastline under the government's new Marine and Coastal Access Bill. Net Gain will publish its proposals for the North Sea, including conservation zones, by the end of 2011. Net Gain is a partnership which aims to secure a healthy and productive future for the North Sea and its coastline.

Project manager Joanna Redhead had earlier urged fishermen and others with an interest in the future of the seas to attend and become involved with the project.

'This is a once in a lifetime chance,' she said. 'I'm disappointed they're not coming. We want people to get involved and stick with us.'

Net Gain will be holding public meetings in the Orbisenergy Centre, Lowestoft, at 3pm and 6pm today .

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