North Norfolk fishing industry hopes for �2.4m investment

A 66-mile stretch of Norfolk coastline is hoping to receive �2.4m of European funding to boost its fishing heritage, in a bid to keep the dying industry afloat and support its dwindling work force.

Environmental chiefs in Brussels are currently considering a bid for the massive lump sum, which if granted is hoped to provide a sustainable future for fishermen from Brancaster to Hemsby, and inshore businesses linked to the traditional trade.

North Norfolk's Fisheries Local Action Group (FLAG) is behind the proposal and has submitted a detailed plan - via the UK's Marine Management Organisation - to the European Fisheries Fund. It shows how it would spend the cash on areas including infrastructure, marketing, education and getting EU protection for the famous Cromer crab, as part of a bid to help save the threatened Cromer Crab Company.

And there is also a longer-term vision to create a fisheries training school.

Robin Smith, North Norfolk District Council's economic development manager who makes up part of FLAG, was spurred into action to spearhead the bid after he saw the many threats facing the coastline, which he believes have combined to make the 'perfect storm' for fishermen and their iconic industry.

He said: 'We have Bacton, we have got wind energy, there's the chalk beds which are a matter of debate. Along with that there are very many threats facing the fishing industry; EU policy, marine management areas and strategies being developed. And there's been the decommissioning taking place with over 10-metre boats.'

'Our economy is supported very much by the fishing industry, not just because of the harvesting offshore, but the feel it gives to the character of the district,' he added.

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'People should be proud they still have a fishing industry, they're the last hunter gatherers on earth, and they're so important. Why people come here as a destination is very much linked with them but on the other hand they need to make a living.

'In this package we can make the fisheries here more sustainable, more profitable and more adaptable to dealing with the pressures and dangers that exist for them in the future.'

One of the key projects the money would fund is research into stock numbers and a seabed monitoring programme which Mr Smith said would safeguard the coast from 'predatory activity' by flagging up vulnerable areas.

The money would also set up a support scheme for fishermen allowing them to apply for low interest loans from FLAG, which they might not be able to obtain from banks, and a group purchasing programme that would help them lower costs by bulk buying supplies, such as bait.

The FLAG bid, which is hoped to be approved in the next two weeks, has received praise from fishermen who believe the small scale investments the money will provide will, at first, make the most difference.

Cromer fisherman John Lee said: 'It's fantastic. It's about time we got some help from somewhere. We get squashed from all directions. We keep the heritage going but we need to keep the trade going as well. There's very few fishermen of any type left in this country now, which is a huge shame.

'I can't imagine what Cromer would be like if there were no crab boats on the beach.'

'It's the small stuff that will probably make the difference to people in the beginning,' he added. 'We want fresh water taps so we can run fresh water through our engines and somewhere where we can put the rubbish. And one of the ideas we'd like is a compound where we can store gear.'

Mr Lee was also pleased to see a sustainability study factored into the FLAG spending as he said there had not been one done since the 50s, and a new one could help encourage youngsters into the industry, which he thought was vital to keeping it alive.

'We need a better idea of the stock numbers because we all have different theories as to why we have good years and bad years,' he said. 'It would help if you can talk to young people with some figures on your side to say this business is still going to be operating in 50 years time.'

It is hoped the bid will also give north Norfolk a stronger voice and more influence over national and international legislation. It is now in its final stage, after going through several phases, but Mr Smith was confident it would be approved.

'I would not now be tying my staff up or building up expectation unless I had a good feeling that we were going to meet the grade,' he added. 'I hope they look to north Norfolk as an exemplar model.'