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Fishing Turf Wars Are Sucking the Life Out of Whitby, England

Home to Dracula's legacy and a vigorous tourism industry, Whitby is also the site of a war being waged by chartered sea anglers, commercial fisherman, and, now, scallop dredgers. In a way, it’s always been like this.
21 October 2014, 10:00am
Photo via Flickr Dommylive

Whitby does seafaring like a boss. Cap'n James Cook did his apprenticeship there before he "discovered" Down Under and went off and got butchered by a butch of Hawaiians and stewed in a pot. As you do. The guy who invented the crow's nest, one William Scoresby, grew up nearby. A whalebone arch is all that remains of the brutal whaling industry of the 1700s. And if that's not enough, The Quayside is the current holder of the Independent Takeaway Fish and Chip Shop of the Year. Go on, give us a chip…

But the quaint little town that has grandma's weeping into their hankies when the holiday's over isn't quite as quaint as it seems – and we're not talking about the Goths who take over the seaside streets twice a year in honour of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was set on these very shores (Stoker stumbled across the name "Dracula" in the public library).

No, fangs aren't the only thing that bite in Whitby. The cut and thrust of the fishing industry is enough to draw blood too; as chartered sea anglers, commercial fisherman, and, now, scallop dredgers battle it out in a turf war out at sea. In a way, it's always been like this. Commercial fishing and tourism jostling one anther out the way in the hope of stealing centre stage. But it was commercial fishing's spot to lose in the first place.

Whitby's harbour started to get popular in the 1600s when the alum that was mined inland began to be shipped all over Europe. As the harbour grew, so to did the trades around it such as shipbuilding, using the local timber. As taxes on imports brought more money into the town this allowed for expansion; and in 1753 the first whaling ship set sail from Whitby to Greenland, stacked with swashbuckling scallies off to clobber a few cubs. The last piece of the puzzle slotted into place in the 1840s, as "The Railway King," George Hudson completed his railway network opening Whitby up to the masses and introducing it to the UK as another sort after Victorian seaside destination.

To start with the burgeoning tourism trade survived in the shadows of the tall ships' masts. This was the heyday of British commercial fishing after all, with records showing trawlers landing twice as much fish in 1889 as they do today, despite the technological advantages. Unbeknownst to those at the time, this was Whitby's moment. They may have feared it would never get better than the 19th century and the truth is it never did. It got worse.

Whitby's fishing industry started a steady decline in the early 1900s. The one-time crucial proximity to Scandinavia throwing up all kinds of trade opportunities soon became a curse, as foreign fishing boats encroached on Whitby's waters. As this relatively small harbour struggled, money for investment became sparse and with little optimism, and families that would normally have gone into the fishing trade had no choice but to look elsewhere. They either had to leave or join the tourism revolution.

A big part of this revolution was sport fishing. Paul Kilpatrick, the chairman of Whitby Charter Skippers' Association (WCSA) and the founder of the Whitby Sea Angling Festival, started out in the sport fishing business 30 years ago, but Whitby's sport fishing heritage can be traced as far back as the 1950s. "Chartered fishing has been here all the time [and] it does bring a lot of revenue into the town," he told me. "It's just that commercial fishing has fallen by the wayside and chartering has kept going."

It's now the dwindling commercial fishing industry which relies on the tourism industry to keep income flooding into the town. The fish market which has been around since the 1800s is barely open, and as a result many fisherman take their catch up the coast to Hartlepool, which prospers from the spoils of Whitby. With commercial fishing all but gone, the Whitby Angling Festival, which takes place four times a year, has become the marquee fishing event of the town as anglers from all around the UK try and pinch their share of the £12,000 (about $19,400) winnings up for grabs. Last month, a 21-pound ling took the £5,000 (about $8,000) prize for biggest fish. That's the same weight as a car tyre.

But despite the sweeping success of his festival and Whitby's rising status as the UK's sea angling Mecca, Kilpatrick fears the whole thing could go to pot in a handful of years; especially if the scallop dredgers have their way. "The damage they're doing to the marine life is catastrophic and nobody cares about it," he says. "The chief fishing officer here doesn't give a shit. They're looking for proof, but it's everywhere on the internet."

Dredging is the practise of ploughing the seabed for shellfish such as scallops, oysters and clams. There have been several campaigns to raise awareness of the environmental impact of dredging, most notably last year's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight.

Yet Kilpatrick says enough isn't being done. "The scallopers are digging up all the ground and in the process they're destroying the habitat. Cod live on rough ground and that environment is being taken away. This last summer there would normally be stacks of cod and there weren't any. They don't give a shit about the environment or other species. It's just a way of making money."

Legally, scallop dredgers can come to within three miles of shore but Kilpatrick thinks they're even "sneaking" in further under the cover of darkness. He also says crab and lobster pots are getting destroyed as the dredgers literally run roughshod over the seabed.

"Two years ago we were seeing a vast improvement in cod fishing stock until these dredgers turned up and now all the fish have pissed off because they've got nowhere to live. Wherever the scallopers dredge they turn it into a fucking desert. The damage they do is unbelievable. They should be banned out to ten miles and they shouldn't be allowed to go over the reefs. They should be protected."

Kilpatrick's claims are backed up by a report I was sent by Seafish.co.uk. The Marine Management Organisation stats of "Landings into UK ports by UK vessels from 2009-2013" show figures for Whitby's demersal fish—fish that live and feed at the bottom of the seabed, such as cod—have gone from 1.2 to 0.3 tonnes landed between 2009 t0 2013. That's just four years. Other fish quantities have also dropped—due to the stripping down of the fish market and other infrastructure in the town—but not as significantly as the fish dredging mostly affects.

To the outsider, Whitby is one of the UK's quaintest towns. But on the inside, two industries are draining each other like Dracula. And just like the famous vampire, it looks like there's no stopping them.