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The Lindisfarne Community on Their Fight Against Proposed Fishing Ban

Boats at Lindisfarne Dreamstime
January 2023
Reading time 4 Minutes

We meet the fishing community of Lindisfarne as they fight against a potential local fishing ban, and discover just how detrimental the impact could be on the popular tidal island and its people

The fishermen and community of The Holy Island of Lindisfarne strongly oppose Defra’s selection of the waters around the island as a proposed site for Highly Protected Marine Area (HPMA) designation. Announced in July, it would mean all fishing in these waters would be banned. The proposed inshore site covers an area of 129 km² and the community argue that its size will have a significant social and economic impact on the island. We’re joining the fishermen and the Holy Island community in their fight against the proposal.
boats in the harbour while the tide is out

As the word has spread, supporters of the island’s fishing community have grown quickly in number, and despite only having a short amount of time to put forward their case, plenty of opinions have been shared and submitted. ‘Fishing is part of the tradition of the island, it’s part of what makes the community what it is,’ says John Bevan, clerk of Holy Island Parish Council and spokesperson for the Holy Island fishermen. ‘We get a huge amount of visitors coming here and one of the things they like, as well as the castle and the priory, is the fact that Holy Island is still a community. It really has that feel about it; it’s not just a holiday resort.

‘We know that the fishing goes back to the early days of the monks here, because they kept written records which date back to the early 1300s. But actually archaeologists tell us that it goes back way beyond that. One actually told us it could go back around 8,000 years, but certainly it goes back to Roman times without a doubt.’

The earliest settlement on Lindisfarne recorded in archaeological evidence dates from the Mesolithic period (also known as the Middle Stone Age). A survey by Leicester University in the 1980s recovered large assemblages of flint tools and debitage in the north east part of the island, indicating that tools were being made here. Most recently, during excavations by Newcastle University on the western part of the Heugh, flint tools and debitage were found in contexts dating back to the early Neolithic period (or New Stone Age).

‘The community argue that environmental sustainability
and stewardship are already high priorities for Holy Islanders. They are small-scale, sustainable fishermen and see themselves as allies in protecting the oceans’

Fishermen sorting boxed fish on a trawler Charlotte Graham Photography

Keeping traditions alive is key for communities like Holy Island’s and fishing is still an important part of their local economy today. Lindisfarne is a small island with a permanent population of around 150 and its tidal causeway means that, on average, crossing to the mainland is only possible for 14 hours a day (times vary each day). There’s no ferry, so for those living on the island, commuting to a job with regular hours on the mainland just isn’t practical. Fishing is the best paid job available on the island (and therefore a vital part of its economy) and the fishermen and their families make up at least 15 percent of the island’s population.

John argues that the proposed site ‘would rip the heart out of the community’. ‘We’re a very small community. If this goes ahead, the fishing ends – that’s it,’ he says. He offers his son-in-law as an example. ‘He’s a Holy Islander, his father was a fisherman, his grandfather was a fisherman and he and his brother are now fishermen,’ he explains. ‘He left school at 16. He’s an intelligent guy, he’s very hard working but he’s got no qualifications and, if this goes ahead, he’s not qualified to pick up any other job. So he and my daughter would leave the island and go to a city in order to find relevant work. The only employment on the island, apart from anything related to fishing, is tourism. Most of that is minimum wage and seasonal work. Most of the population would therefore have to leave.’

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John also offers the Holy Island Coastguard as an example. ‘Because of the situation with the tides, and there being no medical provision on the island, they are the first responders,’ he adds. ‘If you dial 999 on the island, they’re the people who come. They have defibrillators and pain relief and they’ve been trained to a high level as first responders, so they’ll do their job until the professionals arrive. Those professionals come by ambulance if the causeway is open or by lifeboat if not, or in worst circumstances by helicopter, in which case there is a considerable delay in getting here. The coastguard are a huge support and the fishermen and their families make up the bulk of the coastguard. We have a very small primary school with only a handful of children and nearly all those are children of fishermen, so the school would be in danger too.’

The community argue that environmental sustainability and stewardship are already high priorities for Holy Islanders. They are small-scale, sustainable fishermen and see themselves as allies in protecting the oceans. Lobster and crab, as well as herring, cod and other fish, have always been a key part of the catch here, but the older method of using trunks was replaced in the second half of the 19th century by pots, known on the island as creels; potting is typically done inshore in small boats up to a maximum size of 12 metres.

Fishermen on smaller boat transporting catch Charlotte Graham Photography

‘Studies have found that the most sustainable form of fishing is actually lobster and crab fishing because all they do is put the pots down on the seabed then come back and pick them up again,’ says John. ‘They’re not trawling. There’s no dragging along the seabed. There’s no damage to it. This is already a marine-protected area, so there are already very strict regulations on what the fishermen can do, and therefore there’s a limited number of pots they can put down. If they catch lobsters which are below a certain size, they have to put them back. If they catch female lobsters with eggs on them, they have to put them back. And they do that willingly because they realise if they want to be fishing in 10 years time, there has to be a continuity of stock. So they do fish in a very responsible and very sustainable manner.’

Many fishermen are in favour of having Highly Protected Marine Areas, but say they’d rather these were located offshore to stop foreign, industrial-scale fishing for sand eels along the Northumberland coast (because of the importance of sand eels to valued local wildlife such as puffins). It’s also argued that the increasing population of seals on the island is a sign of a thriving ecosystem (National Trust have predicted a record year for seal numbers in the area).

When the HPMA plans were shared, a consultation period took place while the fishermen drafted a separate document to run alongside this. ‘That was specifically done by Defra to take people’s views via online submissions and it was a very detailed, almost scientific, thing,’ says John. The Parish Council, St Mary’s Church, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne Community Development Trust, and a new organisation (which involves all three) called Holy Island 2050 are all involved in supporting this. Holy Island 2050 was launched during the pandemic to help support the future of the island.

‘This is already a marine-protected area, so there are already very strict regulations on what the fishermen can do’

‘We had a lot of meetings both online and face-to-face; there was a public meeting on the island with people from Defra and Natural England, where Defra put forward why they thought it should be done, and the locals told them why it shouldn’t be done,’ John recalls. ‘It was a civilised meeting; robust but done in a sensible way. We have written now to the current ministers putting our argument directly to them because it’s them who will ultimately make the decision.

‘We have also launched a social media campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We’ve asked people if they’re happy to do a podcast and we have got someone who has given their time free of charge to help us put all this together.

‘We recently got an email from Defra saying that they had hoped to complete putting the consultation documents together by the end of this month, but because there were so many people who responded to it, it’s taken longer than planned and so it will be sometime in early 2023 when they will complete their document and present it to the minister. The best thing people can do to help and support is to write either to their own MP, to our MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan, or directly to Thérèse Coffey who is Secretary of State for Environment and will be the person making the ultimate decision.’

Keep up to date with the progress, and join us in supporting the Holy Island community, by searching ‘Save The Holy Island Fishermen’ on social media.

Charlotte Graham Photography | Dreamstime

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