Last man standing

John Hall
John Hall

DESPITE almost 40 years in the business, John Hall never thought he would see the day that he would be the only regular trawlerman fishing out of Whitby.

Sitting in the wheelhouse of his vessel Abbie Lee as he steamed back to the fishing grounds, the skipper took the time to chat to the Gazette’s fishing reporter Karl Hansell about being the last of a dying breed.

Abbie-Lee at the Fish Market''w123110c

Abbie-Lee at the Fish Market''w123110c

“This is it, they’ve nearly beaten us but not yet,” he said.

“I could have retired but needs must.”

Some Whitby skippers have chosen to fish out of other harbours, closer to the fishing grounds and with larger markets.

Others have chosen to sell their trawlers and either downsize to smaller vessels or have given up on the industry altogether.

But John has endured, and now finds that his fishing trips are now a lot lonelier than they used to be.

He said: “Things can only get better, because they have taken the boats away.

“When I’m towing now, I’m the only guy that does it.

“I’m going up and down here on my own.”

A lucrative contract from Seafast has helped supplement the boat’s income, as it allows Abbie Lee to land catch that is exempt from quota.

The boat trawls specific areas and records the data, giving the scientists an indication of how fish stocks are recovering.

Results appear to suggest a dramatic upturn in the number of desirable species such as cod in the North Sea, no doubt aided by a lack of vessels now fishing them, and so John believes that it is time for quota to be adjusted to assist the trawlermen.

“They promised us when the stocks improved they would increase our quota,” he said.

“But they’ve knocked us back and now I’m only allowed to catch a third of the cod I own.

“We’re just normal people trying to make our way but we are at the end of our tether.”

While fishermen acknowledge that in the past they over-fished North Sea stocks, lessons have now been learned and many agree that sustainable fishing is the only way the industry can survive.

However, the bureaucrats appear not to trust the skippers, who must instead fulfill layers of paperwork if they are to fish.

Before departing on Thursday morning, John was required to log into the eLog laptop system and send his sailing times and intentions, before waiting to receive permission to steam.

Even when at sea the Big Brother-style scrutiny continues as skippers must announce when they arrive at the fishing grounds and must give daily updates about their progress.

The repercussions of not fulfilling these requirements are extreme, with huge fines imposed on those who fail to comply.

John said: “It’s getting ridiculous. When I started fishing, aged 17, all you had in the wheelhouse was a compass and a stopwatch.

“Now I’m looking at 12 different screens, not to mention GPS and the monitor on deck.

“They are still putting more and more pressure on us but I’m trying to hang on as best I can.”

The 65-year-old skipper admits he has been tempted to sell the vessel in the past, and came close last Christmas, but he still hopes to be able to pass the family business on to his son, Neil.

A modernisation of the vessel should increase the chances of this happening and he is currently applying for a grant that would allow the boat to be upgraded.

The intention is to alter the boat from a sidewinder, where gear is hauled over the side of the boat by hand, to one that sees the nets hauled mechanically over the stern of the vessel, which would be substantially safer and put less strain on the crew.