John Cole and Darren Hanson
At the turn of the 20th century, there were 80 full-time fishing boats putting out from Staithes harbour, once the largest fishing port in the north east. Many of the cottages in the village are rather romantically named after boats, known locally as cobles, including Kindly Light, True Love and Blue Jacket House. Standing by the sleepy harbour today, it’s hard to imagine the hive of industry it once was.
In its heyday there were 300 men engaged in fishing, with three trains a week delivering the catch to the rest of the country from Staithes Station. Today the numbers are much reduced, with just a couple of craft taking to the sea.
John Cole’s family has been fishing out of Staithes since the 1600s – his great grandfather went to sea in Prosperity, a seven-man double-ended herring coble known as a ‘yawl’. John, who began his career aged 16, still goes out most days, weather-permitting, these days on a much more stable catamaran, Mainstay, with Darren Hanson, from another historic Staithes fishing family.
Fishing for cod and haddock is sadly at an end due to the strict quotas, so the catch is made up of crab and lobster. ’March to June are the best fishing months for crab, though we bring them in all year round’ says John. ‘We’ve got around 600 pots out at any one time – we work 300 one day, and the other 300 the next. We’re up to 5 miles out at sea, where it’s about 27 fathoms deep, for up to 10 hours at a time, often from 4am. The plus side to getting up so early is that we see extraordinary sunrises, and all sorts of wildlife: Minke whales, porpoises and dolphins, and the birdlife is amazing; puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots and gannets.’
John and Darren are, in the main, catching brown crab. ‘There are not so many velvet crab these days’ says John. ‘There’s a healthy market for brown crab, but there’s plenty of lobster to be had too. The warmer the weather, and the more movement there is in the sea, the more we catch.’
It’s not without its dangers of course. ‘Going out is weather-dependent’ says John. ‘A heavy northerly swell will stop us, but fog is the worst thing. And one bad wind down from Iceland and we’re easily blown onto the rocks.’
The catch goes to the top of the bank in Staithes to Matthew Asquith’s crab factory where they’re prepared for their journey to local restaurants and pubs. ‘We’re proud to supply the Magpie Café’ says Matthew. ‘We think our crabs deserve the title ‘artisan superfood’, so called by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. We buy them fresh from the boats and hand-dress them, then they’re freighted to most major cities including Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and London’s Billingsgate. They even make the journey to Devon, that’s how good it is! At our peak in the summer, we can produce 1,000-plus dressed crabs a day. Staithes is definitely on the gastronomic map!’
John is nearing retirement, and he’s philosophical about his time spent at sea ‘It’s not so much a job as a way of life’ he says. ‘Once a fisherman, always a fisherman – it gets under your skin and you can’t really do anything else. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.’