The drive for green energy could threaten the future of one of Yorkshire’s most lucrative traditional industries, its leaders have warned.
The sea bed off the East Riding coast is described as the “perfect” habitat for crab and lobster and is the biggest fishery of its kind in the UK, netting an annual catch worth millions.
But although generations have fished it sustainably for 200 years, fishermen say the industry is facing an unprecedented threat from the development of offshore wind farms, which it is feared will lead to large-scale industrialisation of the sea bed.
There are also concerns fisherman will be excluded from the grounds where the wind farms are sited and that potential damage will be spread across a much greater area than that occupied by the developments.
Mike Cohen, chief executive of Holderness Coast Fishing Industry Group, said: “We are very concerned about habitat change from wind farms being built.
“During construction, big boreholes have to be drilled and big trenches are ploughed for the cables linking the turbines to the land – that causes a lot of habitat damage and not just to the immediate area.
“Hundreds, maybe even thousands of tonnes of sediment will be thrown up into the water column and will settle according to the prevailing currents. We are concerned that sediment from construction projects will smother areas of the sea bed that provide the habitats that crab and lobster stocks depend on.”
He added: “Local fishermen have seen this with gas pipeline construction. Sediment released during the construction of the Langeled pipeline (the world’s longest undersea pipeline, which transports gas from the coast of Norway to Easington in East Yorkshire) killed off crab and lobster stocks in particular patches of the sea bed that were fishing very well.
“When fishermen who used to fish those areas hauled their pots after the pipeline trench had been dug, they were covered in mud and had no shellfish in them. These areas used to be valuable to fishermen but now they are dead spots.”
The catch is worth about £9m a year at the point of sale, and more when resold at wholesale and retail, and is also one of the region’s greatest exports. What is harder to evaluate is the potential threat to a way of life that has been an intrinsic part of the coast’s identity, and its appeal, for centuries.
Mr Cohen said: “A lot of jobs depend on our shellfishing – there are about 200 on boats fishing then there are probably at least as many again working on shore in the harbours, as engineers, in the ship chandlery, unloading catches, and making pots.
“You also need to consider the value of having a working fishery to the tourist industry.
“The atmosphere of a fishing town is very important in attracting visitors to Bridlington, for example. If you visit the town on summer day you will find the harbour full of tourists.”
The fisherman accept change is coming but hope the industry and authorities will work with them to minimise disruption and damage. They are also developing plans to establish a lobster hatchery in Bridlington to help replenish damaged stocks.
They would like to see more attention paid to the potential ecological impact of offshore wind farms and next year will launch their own research boat, the Huntress, in partnership with the North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority and Hull University to help build up a reliable body of evidence about the issue.
Mr Cohen said: “We want to conduct our own research to find out about sedimentation effects.
“I would love to be wrong and to find that the risk is in fact very low.
“Our experience suggests otherwise, though, and we need research into where it happens and how it happens so that we can think about how to remedy it.
Work is already underway by energy giant E.on for its £736m Humber Gateway offshore wind farm, 8km off the Holderness coast, which will comprise 73 turbines.
Cables to connect it to the national grid will come ashore near Easington.
Mr Cohen added: “We know there’s a lot of (positive) publicity about wind farm construction and it’s a marvellous bit of PR, but we have the perfect habitat here, a pristine habitat probably the best in Europe, and it supports an industry that has gone from strength to strength for 200 years.
“Stocks are doing well as well; we are not over fishing. We should be proud of that because we have got a sustainable fishery.
“We should be proud to have one of the big success stories in UK fishing here in Yorkshire, but it is under threat.”