Rex Harrison inherited his fishing license from his father. He has fished the wide waters of Filey bay since childhood, netting for sea trout from a small ‘cob’ boat that has to be dragged into the sea by tractor. Sitting alongside his net for hours, he catches migrating fish – pulling them from the net individually and gutting them on the boat.
A problem with seabirds flying into the nets to catch the gathering fish was solved by fishermen spear-heading a campaign to adapt fishing practices, and learn handling techniques, to make sure the small Filey fleet and local wildlife could go on fishing alongside each other. The fishery is only open for 5 months of the year, but the guys get a good price for their fish and spend the rest of the year working in local small businesses, or busy with volunteer lifeboat duties.
Rex’s proudest memory is getting his fishing license from his father – “that sense of the tradition being carried on” – which he took on at the age of 21.
Now fishing itself risks becoming nothing more than a memory in Filey, and Rex has a new occupation: campaign coordinator. These artisanal fishers – part of a local fishing history stretching back to before the 12th century – are engaged in a fight to protect their livelihood, and their way of life.
New rules, proposed by the Environment Agency (EA), to protect Atlantic salmon stocks risk driving the ‘Filey Few’ – just seven small boats remain – to extinction. The EA is proposing to drastically reduce fishing opportunities for the remaining commercial fishermen in Filey. Eventually, the plan is to remove licenses from the fishermen entirely.
But Rex and the Filey Few also want to make sure there are plenty of salmon for future generations. To protect stocks, boats in Filey have been voluntarily releasing salmon throughout the months of April and May for over a decade, and they focus their commercial operation entirely on catching sea trout. They have voluntarily captured data on all the fish they catch (handing this over to the EA), and they only go to sea for less than half of the year.
Per year, the average catch of salmon by this small inshore fleet is just 157 fish. In comparison, the catch of sea trout is over 4,600 fish. This valuable, sustainable sea trout fishery – supplying the local fishmongers, pubs, restaurants and hotels – will be completely eliminated by the EA’s proposals, along with similar fisheries the length of the North Yorkshire coast.
The town is plastered with campaign posters, and an online petition is already showing in excess of 16,000 signatures. Paper petitions hang by the quayside and can be found in every pub, with tourists adding 3,000 signatures during the recent Easter break: keen to show support for a vital piece of the town’s culture and appeal.
Fishermen have presented at local schools, met with politicians and sat down with local business leaders to share their stories and create a movement to save Filey’s sea trout fishery for the next generation.
On the 14th May, the town played host to some of the country’s best chefs, including Ed Baines of Randall & Aubin – a top seafood restaurant in Manchester– and Michelin-starred James Mackenzie from Yorkshire’s The Pipe & Glass.
Local supporters are set to flood to the town too, as all the ‘Filey Few’ will take to the sea to catch fish and bring it back to the cobbled landing to be cooked by the visiting chefs: celebrating local, sustainable produce with all the fishermen’s supporters.
Despite protests which continue today, Filey finally shut its doors to Sea trout fishing this week, and the last of the fish was bought by Randall & Aubin for their Seasonal Supper on Tuesday. The fish was roasted and served with crab and chervil beignets, with samphire and bouillabaisse sauce.
It was one last hurrah for the Filey sea trout and a local tradition which has sadly reeled in its net for the last time.