East or West, the fish is the best

PUBLISHED: 09:47 16 December 2014 | UPDATED: 09:47 16 December 2014




Famous for its fishing heritage, Mersea Island owes so much to the sea that surrounds it. Petra Hornsby looks at the special features that have made Mersea what it is today and still provide its unique character

Mersea Island sits in the Blackwater and Colne estuaries, located southeast of Colchester. The island is often divided into East Mersea and West Mersea and both halves are connected to the mainland by a causeway, known as the Strood, famously liable to flooding during high tides, cutting off any traffic on and off the island.

In 2012, as part of the Queen’s jubilee celebrations, Mersea claimed independence for the day meaning that in order to gain access to the island, people would have to pay 50p for a passport to cross the Strood and all the money raised went to the Help the Heroes charity.

It is just as well the passport scheme was a one-off, as tourism is thriving here; there are three popular holiday parks attracting thousands of campers and caravans during the summer season and rows of beach huts for the day trippers. Crabbing off the jetty at West Mersea, combined with the opportunity to potter around the shops, the pretty weatherboard cottages and then take refreshment at the fine pubs, cafes and restaurants the island has to offer — including the hugely successful Company Shed — make the perfect day out for the whole family.

Sailing is another of the island’s passions with an annual boat-racing festival, organised by the West Mersea Yacht Club and Dabchicks Sailing Club, which takes place during Mersea Week and brings in several hundred visitors every year. Many leisure boats are moored at Mersea and there are yacht chandlers and agents located on the island along with companies offering fishing and sailing trips for tourists to enjoy.

Although the East part of the island is largely farmland, it is hard to miss the importance of fishing when visiting West Mersea. Oyster farming has been practised since the Romans occupied the region and, although the industry has suffered setbacks due to hard winters and threats from the Bonamia parasite, the native Colchester Oyster remains as popular as ever, bearing the true taste of the waters they grow in.

Fishing cooperative, Mersea Island Fresh Catch, is another island success story. Facing pressure from outside, the cooperative has worked to keep together a way of life known for generations, helping preserve the rights of the local fishermen to make the best possible living from what they do.

Just a few years ago, Defra was offering selected fishing communities the opportunity to take part in a pilot scheme which they thought would help the community survive and Mersea was in the top ten. The ‘community quota’ was being set according to track record and a percentage of that was then calculated as the final quota for future catches. New, younger fishermen, however, had no track record or figures on which to base their calculations effectively, dividing up the quota further and spreading the expected income too thinly to work for the group. The catch would usually be taken to market, but it was suggested that an alternative sales strategy could be a better option financially.

After several meetings, the Mersea fishermen opted to walk away from the proposal, electing to continue working independently, as indeed did all the other fishing communities with the exception of Ramsgate.

Two years ago, at the annual May Mersea Food Festival, the collective launched Mersea Island Fresh Catch and it hasn’t looked back.

Frances French of Mesrea Island Fresh Catch explains: ‘Last year our sales were up by 300%. The fishermen land their catch on a daily basis and on a Tuesday and Thursday, at 2.45pm, along with Tim Cook and Steven Stoker; we set up at the top of the jetty on West Mersea and sell the catch of the day straight out of the fish boxes.’

Frances continues: ‘We have a fantastic following. As soon as we begin unpacking, people start appearing — as if out of nowhere! Our local clients are very loyal and we also have people coming from the south of the county as well as from London. We also supply the local pubs and restaurants.’

The catch of that day is advertised on the group’s Facebook page and here clients are invited to post their favourite recipes.

Frances is a former hairdresser who has married into the community. Husband Johnny is a seventh generation fisherman, working with his father, Andrew, but Frances has quickly learned the ways of the fishing industry.

‘Over the past five years I have worked supporting the fishermen, attended meetings for them when they have needed representation, helped source equipment and generally been troubleshooting any problems that come their way. We are not a big community, with up to ten boats going out of Mersea. Sadly, we still face pressure that puts our livelihood into question.’

On the first of January, the EU had proposed a blanket ban on drift net fishing in all EU waters due to the protection of marine wildlife such as dolphins, swordfish and turtles. This would affect 1,200 fishing vessels in the UK alone.

Frances wrote numerous letters and lobbied her local MP and, after some pressure, her husband Johnny and fellow fisherman Robert Mole were invited to represent the industry at a meeting in Brussels. The result is that the ban has been postponed for a minimum of ten months, but the worry for the fishermen remains.

‘Currently the MMO (Marine Management Organisation) has said that the UK has no more current quota left for catching skate, a very popular fish with our customers, and there is a ban on us landing it and selling it. However, as we fish by net, we are still catching it and, due to the ban, are throwing large quantities of dead skate back into the sea. It is very frustrating.’

Frances feels this current situation is down to the MMO having mismanaged the quota. ‘We are not going to give up and I am happy to be a voice representing the UK’s great fishing industry,’ Fances continues. ‘Being able to fish the way we do and sell the way we do keeps alive a tradition that is vital to us all — and one that we should all worry about losing. Our fishermen respect the need to maintain healthy numbers of fish and allow fish stocks to be replenished, but there needs to be a greater relationship and understanding between official organisations and those who fish as a way of earning a living.’

Although skate is off the menu, the waters off Mersea boast a fantastic array of fish including Dover sole, sea bass, cod, turbot, mullet and lobsters to name just a few.

‘We have also just started selling a selection of smoked fish including bloaters, smoked cod and kippers and these are proving very popular,’ adds Frances.

Mersea Island is a unique part of Essex and all its ingredients seem finely balanced. But take one of these away and the loss would be keenly felt. Thankfully, the islanders — and in particular Frances and the fishing community working there — are unlikely to let that happen.

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