A day in the life of a Suffolk fisherman
“Never wear them,” says Dean. “Not even on the coldest winter days. I saw too many fisherman lose fingers when their gloves got caught in equipment. You’ve got a better chance to get your fingers out the way quickly without them so I just decided to get used to the cold.”
It’s a reminder that this isn’t a normal job. Normal jobs don’t start on Aldeburgh beach on the Suffolk coast at 3am, which is the time I stumbled bleary-eyed onto the shingle to meet Dean at his hut opposite the White Lion Hotel. At 3.30am as his 21ft boat slips off the trailer and plunges into the sea, he recalls the mornings when 25 fishing boats would head out into the darkness at this time – now there’s just two.
“Bureaucracy, paperwork, over-the-top EU quotas and the rising costs of simply fueling and maintaining a boat have driven most fishermen out of the business,” explains Dean. “I’ve been doing this for 33 years, seven days a week weather permitting, and will keep going until my body can’t do it anymore. Despite the difficulties there’s really nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
On the edge
Dean’s fishing partner, Paul Gittins, known as Pixie, who maneuvers the trailer to haul the boat in and out of the surf each morning, wades into the crashing waves and clambers aboard. In a world consumed with health and safety seeing this is as refreshing as the sea breeze whipping in from the east.
Within ten minutes the Suffolk coast has all but disappeared and shooting stars are streaking across the night sky. I can see the distant glow of Felixstowe Docks. The orange lights of the nuclear power plant at Sizewell appear and disappear as the tiny fishing boat bobs up and down. I’m clinging onto the gunwale, daren’t let go, haven’t found my sea legs yet and I’m willing myself not to be seasick. There’s another five hours of this to go.
We’re three or four miles out from the coast when Pixie begins laying the nets. Constellations sparkle above us and Dean describes nights where the sea glows with phosphorous, the heavens illuminated by meteor showers. “I could never work in an office; couldn’t stand being on a train grinding into a city to spend 9 hours at a desk staring at a screen,” says Dean. “This is tough, but to see the world like this, to breath in fresh sea air every day is an absolute privilege.”
There’s a faint glow to the east when Dean and Pixie, who have been working together for 18 years, start the most physically demanding part of the day: the hauling in of the nets.
Sole, skate, bass and flounder are removed from the nets in a flash and launched into containers on deck, which are soon brimming with glistening catch.
As the sun tips over the horizon the boat jostles through the waves to the 48 lobster and crab pots which are lifted one after the other into the boat. Claws clattering, the catch is whipped out and either tossed back overboard if they’re too small or placed in tubs.
Into the shallows and it’s time to reel in the herring nets as flocks of raucous gulls cloud above the boat. Cockle boats from King’s Lynne sweep in behind us and I sense the timeless quality of this industry and wonder what the future will bring.
“When I was a boy we’d all wait on the beach for the fisherman to return so we could help unload and sell the fish,” says Dean. “We never see them now, there’s really no interest from young people. I have three daughters who certainly won’t be doing this so it will end with me.
“I wouldn’t encourage youngsters to do this job. There was a time when the authorities supported us, now it feels like they are just waiting to punish you. A small boat like this barely scratches the surface in terms of catch. We were treated differently to the big trawlers once but now it’s just a blanket approach to us all. If the EU says catch has to be cut by 50 per cent next week, we are all in the same boat. With the price of diesel it can be tough to break even sometimes.”
Landing the catch
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are days when the nets are lined with fish, the lobster and crab pots bursting and the holiday makers snapping up the catch as it’s lifted off the boat. Today’s no exception. As we head back to shore there are customers waiting while vans from local restaurants and fish traders pull up.
Standing with them, blade in hand, is Flauterer Mick Wilson. Within seconds of the catch being landed he’s gutting and filleting fish with deft, lightning quick flicks of his knife.
For Dean and Pixie the day is far from over. There are lobsters to boil, crabs to dress for the local restaurants, the boat to clean and nets to fix. And that’s when they’re not serving customers from the hut or in the winter baiting thousands of hooks for the next day’s cod fishing.
I watch a holiday maker inspecting the catch and focusing her camera to take a photo. “It’s still alive,” she gasps as one of the fish flips its tail. It’s a stark reminder that we’re becoming disconnected from the food we eat.
The sight of a small inshore fishing boat hauling in a net has all but disappeared from our coast. Periods of overfishing, the development of large factory trawlers and strict quotas have eroded to extinction this East Coast industry, but those that remain are a key part of our coastal history and an increasingly unique link to the sea.