How the community of Emsworth rallied behind their fishermen
- Credit: Archant
After winter storms washed away its local lobster pots, the harbourside community of Emsworth rallied behind their fishermen to create a beacon of hope. Viv Micklefield finds out what today’s catch of the day holds as a result
Sitting on Emsworth’s pretty quayside watching the holidaymakers enjoying an ice cream in the sunshine, it’s difficult to picture the harsh reality of earning a living beyond the harbour walls. Working 18-hour days, battling against low quotas and the weather which can be both dangerous and unpredictable, it’s high risk for our committed fishermen and for their families.
“This is a lifestyle not a job,” says Chantelle Williams who’s married to Peter, the skipper of Sarah C, a small day boat which has fished local waters sustainably for almost a decade. “It’s about selling fish which are in plentiful supply, using bigger mesh size nets than the regulations require, and releasing the younger fish back into the sea,” Chantelle explains. “Even our daughter Alishia comes along to the fish markets after spending the day at school.”
Keeping food miles to a minimum, Peter’s boat also supplies local shops including Emsworth’s M.R.Starr and Alan Rae on Hayling Island, while Fridays see Chantelle selling that morning’s catch at Stansted Park farm shop near Rowlands Castle, where regular customers await.
“At first I thought it might be lonely being a fisher’s wife,” she says. “But we’ve got that connection now with the local community who want to buy fresh fish and shellfish from their local fishermen,” adding: “We also run fish filleting lessons and do talks at the community centre about the difference their support makes to our lives, because every piece of fish bought helps to put food on our plates.”
Back on dry land, Peter takes a pragmatic view.
“The UK’s small fleet contribute to the coastal economy. When no-one’s here in the winter we’re still buying diesel and paying welders, and people can still buy fresh fish from us.
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“It can get quite ‘interesting’ on a windy day. I work on my own so try to keep everything clean and tidy because if anything happens there’s only me to call on the radio to fire a flare or launch the life raft. If I went over the side, no-one would know for quite some time.”
Quite how much this Hampshire town values its brave independent fishermen, was evident last December when, standing proudly like a beacon at the water’s edge, was a dazzling Christmas ‘tree’ made entirely from lobster pots.
This however, was no schmaltzy festive decoration, as each and every one of the 60 pots had been bought by local people in direct response to the plight of Peter and his fellow Emsworth fisherman Kelvin Cole, after both suffered irreparable damage and losses to the tools of their trade.
“During 2014 there were so many winter storms one after the other that we didn’t have a chance to go down to the lobster and whelk pots, so they got completely smashed up - we lost £8000 that year,” says Chantelle.
“It was gutting knowing that you’ve worked so hard to pay for your fishery and you lose it just like that. Fishing gear can’t be insured and although there’s government funding available of up to 50 per cent towards replacement costs, if you haven’t been able to fish for three months beforehand, and then when you can finally get back out the quotas are really low, what can you do?”
Talking to the couple during Emsworth’s celebration of British Food Fortnight last September, gave Alistair Gibson of the local Business Association greater insight into their day-to-day challenges. “It’s a real struggle for fishermen,” says Alistair who, having seen photos of New England’s traditional lobster pot Christmas trees, thought something similar a bit closer to home might bring seasonal cheer to all.
“The idea of selling lobster pots was a bit of a gamble,” he admits. “But at a cost of £35 per pot it wasn’t about making money, Peter and Kelvin really needed our help and the support from the community was unbelievable. We could have sold triple the number of pots, it really captured people’s imagination.”
It’s the latest in a series of initiatives by the Emsworth Business Association that’s seen the town become established as a destination for food lovers - its array of renowned restaurants, pubs, independent shops and award winning food events all proof of this.
“Emsworth is a great example of a community getting behind their core produce,” says Tracy Nash of Hampshire Fare.
“Just as Hampshire watercress and trout is part of our rivers’ heritage, so our coastal waters are also extremely important - these communities of fishermen have been plying their nets for years.” She continues: “It’s more of a challenge for the small producer creating the local demand for their produce and, these days, you need to have your eyes wide open to any opportunities.”
A community fish box collection scheme (www.freshfromtheboat.co.uk) is another example of how the Williams family is doing just that, enabling customers in Emsworth to buy part of the latest catch. And expectations are high thanks to Peter’s share of the new pots…fresh lobsters will make a welcome appearance within these boxes too.
With replacement hauling equipment and ropes installed, the baited pots will be put to work throughout the year. Although as Chantelle points out, despite resting gently on the seabed around a mile out from the shore, they remain at the mercy of the weather and of passing dredgers. Nevertheless, she’s buoyant because: “Having the lobster pots gives us another income.” Not only is lobster a high value item at £15 to £18 a kilo, with escape hatches on the pots for juveniles ensuring breeding stocks are sustained, there’s less restriction on how much they can catch and sell.
And Peter speaks from the heart when he says: “If we’d wanted to be millionaires, we wouldn’t have chosen this career path. We enjoy being outside in the wild, pitting our wits against nature and providing fresh fish for local people so they can enjoy what the sea has to offer. We look after our fishery because we want it to continue into the future.”
So, is Emsworth going to be lit-up with lobster pots again?
“We shall definitely have another lobster pot Christmas tree in 2016 and the fundraising for this will be launched soon,” confirms Alistair Gibson.
Add the fishermen’s steely determination to fight for their survival and, says Tracy Nash, it’s a winning combination: “As Emsworth has shown, where there’s this sense of togetherness and an openness to new ideas, it’s possible to achieve some amazing results.”
Become a fisherman’s friend
This autumn Emsworth offers something for everyone during British Food Fortnight. Steer a course to the quayside on Sunday 25 September, when some of the town’s chefs will be cooking-up a lobster themed community seafood lunch. The Emsworth Business Association, website: www.emsworth.org.uk has details.
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