Suesan Brown & Shane Bagely
Shell-fishing ranks alongside salt-making and wildfowling as one of Boston’s earliest occupations. It was a lucrative and dangerous occupation that once involved the retrieving of shell-fish from the exposed and treacherous sandbanks and then laying them out in shallower waters where the tide would wash them clean before they were sold on. Improvements in transportation provided easy access to the growing demands for shell-fish from the new towns and Continental Europe. This led to rapid growth which by 1868 was out of control through over-fishing. This near collapse of the industry led to it being put on a more sustainable footing. In 1898 the Boston Bailiff, Samuel Hackford noted that 288 sail and row boats were fishing in the Wash. Many of these were out of Boston.
Shell-fish are found on the shifting sandbanks and mudflats of The Wash and shrimps in the deep water channels between them. Boats have always been small, with modern boats being very versatile and able to change their rigs to suit the type of catch. When fishing for shrimp, for example, beam trawls are arrayed on booms either side of the vessel. Cockles are the main catch during the summer, although this stretches into autumn or even winter in a good year. Although for a time dredging was permitted, cockles are now harvested at low tide when they are raked out by hand. This traditional method ensures that this highly regulated industry is sustainable and that ample are left for the birds. The winter months are usually the time for mussel dredging by the boats.
Individual shell-fishing boats are not given an annual catch-quota, instead one is set for the entire fleet by the IFCA (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority). Bedsides landing catch the fisherman manage what are called mussel ‘lays’. These are designated areas that a fisherman rents where small mussels, called ‘seed’, are re-laid having been taken from from specific ‘wild areas’ of The Wash or from other places such as Morecombe Bay. These are harvested by dredging in the winter months once they have grown.
In the 1990s the increased interest in the wider environment and concerns about possible coastal flooding culminated in the realignment of the sea banks and the creation of conservation areas in the Wash and along the North Norfolk coast. One of the consequences of these changes was the disappearance of Boston’s oyster farm under new sediment deposits left by shifts in the tidal pattern resulting from breaches made in the outer sea bank at Freiston.
Today, Boston’s shell-fishing fleet numbers around 26 boats who must adhere to various environmental legislation in addition to IFCA regulations. However due to more effective fishing methods the annual tonnage landed is not dissimilar to that being landed at the beginning of the 20th century, still ranking Boston as one of the major suppliers of shell fish for the UK and European market.