Soon they will return. But when the small fishing boats of East Yorkshire’s Holderness Coast go back to Westermost Rough some time within the next few weeks, what they will find remains as murky as the waters they used to fish.
This area of the North Sea is by far the UK’s most prolific lobster ground. Before the boats were barred from entering it, in mid-2013, to allow for the construction of a 35-turbine windfarm, it provided more than 15% of the 3,500 tonnes of lobster taken from UK waters every year. Landed at Bridlington, and the smaller neighbouring ports of Flamborough, Hornsea, Withernsea and Easington, the lobsters – and a large quantity of crabs and whelks – are mostly exported and are highly prized in France, Spain and Portugal.
Now, as they prepare to return, fishing crews hope that there will still be shellfish under the waves to catch. “The questions we are asking are: can we safely fish among the turbines and is there anything left to catch?” said Mike Cohen, chief executive of the Holderness Fishing Industry Group, the UK’s largest association representing lobster fishers.
Since construction started, the windfarm’s owner, Dong Energy, has been working with Cohen’s group to gauge the effects of the turbines on crustaceans and white fish in the North Sea. The intention is to publish the research annually, allowing both sides to study the long-term impact on marine stocks as the world pushes ahead with offshore wind – a technology that is becoming a major industry in the north-east of England.
In addition to Westermost Rough, which will supply enough energy to power 150,000 homes, another major farm in the Humber Gateway is due to go live soon. And there are plans to build two more, at Dogger Bank and Hornsea. But many people on the coast are worried about what a massive expansion in offshore energy means for the fishing industry. There used to be 70 boats fishing Westermost Rough, but many other industries – pot and rope making, boat painting, engineering and port maintenance – depend on it for a livelihood.
Cohen fears the lobster beds may have been “smothered” by sediment thrown up by the cable-laying. Other threats include vibrations, shadows and heat generated by the elecotromagnetic cables.
Some local skippers remember when gas pipes were laid in the area a few years ago and their pots were hauled up full of mud. The turbines also present navigation issues, and there are fears that the mile-long lines used to lay lobster pots could become snagged on the turbines and cause boats to capsize.
“Go back a generation and the only people using the seabed were fishermen,” Cohen said. “Now you’ve got gas rigs, windfarms, telecom cables, energy cables, carbon capture pipelines … The notion that the sea is free to travel through doesn’t exist any more.”
The fishing industry accepts that the sea is no longer its exclusive domain. Gary Hodgson, chair of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation’s shellfish committee, said: “More offshore wind can only be a positive step, so long as it’s not to the disadvantage of the fishing communities around the UK. It provides 3% of the UK’s energy production – a figure that is set to rise throughout 2015 – and the cost has fallen by 11% over the past three years.”
A spokesman for Dong said the company believed protecting fishing was crucial to the success of offshore energy. “An offshore wind farm can be operational for around 25 years, so the key to success with a project like Westermost Rough is based on cooperation and building a sustainable relationship with the entire community.”
As they have not been fished for a couple of years, stocks in Westermost are expected to have increased. Whether they can be sustained in the long term will determine whether the sea can still provide a livelihood for those who have depended on it for centuries.
Cohen said: “These are third- or fourth-generation fishermen. They want to earn money from catching fish. It’s a hard job, and still the most difficult peacetime job there is. There is a huge amount of risk.”
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