The grey skies hanging over Wells Harbour match the mood of the crab fishermen below. It’s barely a week since energy giant Dong went to the High Court and got an injunction to stop two dozen Norfolk boats from putting their crab pots out on Race Bank, some 17 miles out to sea. And the gloom hasn’t lifted. The colourful lights of the Pop-Inn Amusement Arcade and Ye Olde Rock Shop are in stark contrast to the grim state of mind of the embattled fishermen.
Ranged up against them are not only the squalls, storms and swelling tides of the Wash, but the might of the British judicial system. For Dong – headquartered in Denmark, according to its website, with offices in Belgravia – has effectively secured the eviction of the Norfolk crabbers from their Race Bank happy hunting grounds. It’s the Viking invasion all over again, complain the fishermen, who have tended their crab pots on Race Bank for decades.
The men are furious following the discussions they’ve had with Dong. “Basically, they told us what they wanted us to do, and ended up going to court to get it,” says skipper Nicky King, leaning against a pile of empty crab pots. “They kept saying they wanted little bits of ground here and there,” says his colleague Carl Pickering, known as Cyclops because he’s only got one working eye. “We felt it was just a box-ticking exercise, talking to us.”
The root of the problem is that the Race Bank is crab-rich territory. “It’s the best ground in the whole area,” says snowy-bearded Stephen Billing, 65, a seafarer all his life. “Once they put in those wind turbines, the sand will disappear – and so will the crabs.”
Maybe so, but the men have all had letters and emails informing them that the court wants their crab pots shifted. Even though it’ll take 10 days and a lot of good weather to do it. “Trouble is, that when you shift your gear, you usually shift it on to someone else’s patch. Which make them unhappy.”
Two things become immediately clear when you come to Wells. The first, is that it is a close-knit seafaring town; the fishermen all know at which guesthouse your Daily Telegraph reporter has spent the night (as well as the other B&Bs he tried; they were full, amid the height of the summer season).
The other obvious fact about Wells-next-the-Sea (the clue’s in the name) is that seafood is big business. Which means that unlike many other seaside towns, the ocean here is not just scenery, it’s a workplace.
All along the waterfront, there are vans (the Wells Crab House Café, J Nudds Crab and Lobster Fisherman) proclaiming not just that they sell fresh crab, but that it’s been caught by their own vessel. And while non-fishermen’s cars take up only a small part of the allocated parking space, six or seven times that amount is given over to the town’s flesh-and-blood heroes: the men who don’t just sell crabs, or dress them, but who go out in all weathers and catch them.
None of which tugs at the heartstrings of Dong (6,000 employees and counting). It has been commissioned by the Crown Estate to carry out surveys with a view to planting 91 wind turbines on the spot where the crabbers come to fish.
And if British houses are to continue to have light bulbs that come on at an affordable rate, then Dong need to get on with the job.
The good news, from Dong’s point of view, is that it can wield its injunction like Neptune’s gleaming trident. The bad news is that the crabbers aren’t in any mood to shift. It’s already nine or so hours since the court order came into force, and no one seems to be in any hurry to comply.
“There’s no way we’re just going to roll over and give up our livelihoods,” says King, to nods of approval from his fellow crewmen. “We may be raggedy-arsed fishermen, but we’re not going to lie down and take orders from some great, big multinational company. If they think that, they’ve never been to Norfolk.”
The scene is thus set for the kind of confrontation portrayed in David Puttnam’s 1983 film Local Hero, in which a handful of Scottish villagers band together to thwart a US energy firm that wants to buy up the whole fishing community and its land. It’s the little folk versus big business. Or, in this case, Jack Sprat versus King Dong.
Dong says: “We strive to establish a clear and firm dialogue with relevant stakeholders and the local community. Seeking legal redress is very much a last resort that we were hoping to avoid.”
Meanwhile, the fishermen, says King “just want everyone to go away [though he puts it more colourfully] and leave us to do our fishing.”
Some hope. Sniffing the Norfolk sea air yesterday morning, you can pick up the odour of salt, of fish and mud, but nothing that smells like optimism. And to be fair, the fishermen don’t have much of a plan, other than putting forward the case that this dispute is not of their making.
“It’s a good question,” says King, when asked what his next move will be. “There’s no way we can compete with Dong in the law courts, for starters. In the short term, we’re a bit stuck, especially as it’s the weekend now. Apart from anything else, we don’t know any lawyers prepared to work on Saturday or Sunday. You could say we’re a bit like rabbits caught in the headlights. Our main weapon, I suppose, is to generate negative PR for Dong.”
Where, then, is the cavalry, if not coming over the hill, then at least appearing on the horizon? Enter Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations. “This is a very serious issue,” he says. “To my knowledge, this is the first time the courts have been used. As an organisation, we have had 30 years of dealing with development companies: oil, gas, cables, pipelines, you name it – we’ve dealt with companies like BP, Statoil and BT Subsea. It’s not a question of fishermen saying ‘the sea belongs to us’ – it’s always possible to come to an arrangement. This really does have the feel of a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut.”
As for offers of compensation to the men to stay away, Deas is dismissive. “That’s not what the men want,” he explains. “These are some of the busiest months of the year. If the men don’t fish, they lose their livelihoods. You can’t help feeling there is a political imperative at work here. Which is ‘wind farms save the planet, so everyone else get out of the way’.”
And of course, aside from the lofty issues of climate change and green energy, there is the more mundane problem of where to store the crab pots.
“Some boats put out up to 2,000 pots,” says King. “I know for sure my wife doesn’t want 500 of them sitting in our back garden. After a few months in the sea, they give off a very distinctive odour, shall we say.”
There’s plenty of support from local people, too. Guesthouse owner Trudy Howson, who wrote a poem about the fishermen for the 2012 London Olympics, is outraged that they are being told where they can and can’t fish.
“The fishermen have been here for generations,” she says. “It’s a very hard life going out to sea, for 12 hours at a time, and the fact is, the fishing boats are what make Wells. They dominate the harbour, and they are the life of this town. Without them we become just another shiny upmarket resort like Burnham.”
It’s hard to disagree with her. Whereas nearby Burnham is almost entirely decorated in Farrow and Ball-meets-National Trust green and grey, Wells-next-the-Sea lives up to its crusty, workaday name. It’s one of the few seaside resorts where the small array of fish-and-chip-shops and ice-cream parlours is dwarfed by the long line of seagoing fishing boats and, at high tide, by the swirl of fast-flowing tidal water. For the younger members of the fishing fleet, however, employment prospects look about as promising as the dark, grey clouds above.
“I’m 33 now and I’ve been on the boats since I was 17,” says one skipper. “If this packs up, I’ve got no chance. And it’s not just us in the boat, either. There’ll be a knock-on effect for those on land who depend on us – crab dressers, fish stalls, you name it.”
As for the compensation offered (£220 per boat per day has been mentioned), the fishermen say it’s nowhere near enough.
“I’ve been working on the boats for 14 years and I can remember the minimum amount used to be £300 per boat,” says Daniel Warnes, captain of the Gabriella. “The fact is, I get through 200-plus litres of fuel a day.”
For now, then, the future, like the Wells weather, looks uncertain in the extreme. Of course, the happy ending would involve the fishermen shaking hands with the Jolly Green Energy Giant, and everyone dancing round a brightly lit Christmas tree. At the moment, however, that fairy-tale option looks a long way off.
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