FISHING has long been a key part of Teesside’s proud heritage, but locals fear their livelihoods could be wiped out due to a devastating destruction of sea life.

Hartlepool is just one of many fishing hotspots along the coast which has enjoyed a wealth of activity for decades but is now grappling with a crustacean crisis that is erasing years of hard work.

Fishermen in the once thriving fishing town are now struggling to catch anything – and they argue their concerns haven’t been heard. On a visit to Hartlepool’s Fish Quay, many of the town’s proud fishermen are despondent about the future of fishing.

“There is no life whatsoever left in the areas where we fish,” Paul Widdowfield told The Northern Echo. “In the past, we have seen life in every pot, and there should be six or seven lobsters in, but they’re empty.”

Up to 160 lobster and crab pots are lowered into the sea on some trips but have returned to shore empty on several occasions. A return log sheet showed 700kg of crab was collected in one visit in October. In May, it had decreased to 16kg.

The rapid decrease in sea life has coincided with “apocalyptic” piles of dead crustaceans washing up along the coastline and a mystery dog illness, which was first reported in October last year. Its lead to a growing discontent among the fishing industry, with many believing that chemicals disturbed by dredging on the Tees riverbed was responsible for the deaths.

A suggestion from DEFRA that a “naturally occurring harmful algal bloom” was the cause of the deaths between October-December has been disputed.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Dead crabs brought to shore for testingDead crabs brought to shore for testing

Darlington and Stockton Times: Hartlepool fisherman Paul GravesHartlepool fisherman Paul Graves

“There’s something going into their system that’s killing them and it’s going up and down the coast and nobody is answering our questions,” says lifelong fisherman Paul Graves.

“We’ve done this all our life; we know what’s happening and we know when it’s not right.”

For Robert Flannery, the discovery of 15 dead lobsters on one recent trip has supported claims of piles of dead crustaceans along the seabed. “If you look at a lobster now they’re coming up with one claw, half dead,” he said.

They have been forced to diversify their way of working by extending their fishing area further, but as shoreline fishers on small boats, can only do so much.

Jamie Widdowfield, son of Paul and fisherman for 20 years, said: “It’s costing us money to go out there and we can’t afford to chuck money away like that. But we’re still trying and will keep going out.”

Mr Graves added: “If we go further out we will be putting our lives at risk. You don’t want to be playing out there in a small boat. We’re already past our comfort zone.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Hartlepool fishermen Jamie (left) and Paul WiddowfieldHartlepool fishermen Jamie (left) and Paul Widdowfield

July is known as one of the best months to catch lobster locally, yet how fortunate locals will be remains unclear. The winter months were once dubbed ‘prawn season’ but recent attempts to catch large amounts of the crustacean have been unsuccessful.

“We’re fisherman and we try to catch fish so we will do what we can,” added Paul Widdowfield.

The fishing industry has struggled with a series of crises over the years from Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic to fuel prices and this latest challenge. Fishing today is in stark contrast to the prosperous past.

“The fisheries were the best they’ve ever been before the pandemic until this disaster, and we were making £1,800-£3,000 a day,” said Paul Widdowfield. “We were thinking we saw the last of it all and life’s going to be good again and now there’s nothing to catch.

“It’s having a massive knock-on effect. The buyers are buying elsewhere; it’s the whole chain that’s affected.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: The fishing industry has struggled with a series of crises over the years from Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic to fuel pricesThe fishing industry has struggled with a series of crises over the years from Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic to fuel prices

The Hartlepool fishermen have called for an independent body to investigate the crustacean deaths and for officials and politicians to visits the Quay to hear of their troubles. The coast of Hartlepool is perfect, they say, because of the array of fish available.

“We take pride in our fishing heritage, everybody does, but who’s going to be fishing in 10-15 years if it carries on? No one,” Jamie Widdowfield said.

“We feel like we’ve been let down massively. Nobody wants to know.”

For Paul Graves, he’s faced challenges ever since he launched his career, but is encouraged by the everlasting community spirit around the industry.

He said: “This is a lifetime of work and it’s what I love. I want to be working but I can’t. I don’t want anything else; this is my lifestyle.

“We’re going to have to diversify to get through this but we’re fisherman, we’ve always done that.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Fishing has always been a part of Paul's lifeFishing has always been a part of Paul's life

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