Between five and ten kilometres off the West Sussex coast lies an area of significant marine importance.
The Kingmere, situated between Worthing and Littlehampton, is renowned for its black sea bream stock, its protected subtidal chalk and rock and mixed sediment.
It’s because of these unique features that it was chosen by the Government to be among the first tranche of sites in English and Welsh territorial and UK offshore waters to be granted Marine Conservation Zone status back in 2013.
The area is a popular recreational fishing spot, with charter boats taking bookings from anglers from all over the country and beyond who specifically want to fish for black bream.
While the anglers and charter skippers rightly support the conservation status they are concerned that fishing management rules currently being formulated could have devastating consequences for their businesses and the sport they love.
Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) has been tasked with consulting all stakeholders, which includes anglers, potters, divers, charter skippers and commercial fishermen, on fishing activity management in the Kingmere, before it introduces byelaws to regulate fishing in the conservation zone.
Despite a number of consultations between stakeholders and IFCA in the past 18 months, anglers and charter skippers feel there are still many unanswered questions and believe their livelihoods could be under threat if certain managerial options are taken.
Mark Vale, a Sussex angling charter skipper, said: “There are serious concerns over the restrictions that will be imposed on charter boat angling with the introduction of the Kingmere marine conservation zone.”
During last year’s bream breeding season, Mr Vale, whose vessel launches from Shoreham Port, said 70 per cent of his income came from fishing the Kingmere for black bream. In a 98-day period, he took an average party of six anglers to Kingmere 23 times.
He said: “The Kingmere is very unique. People literally come from all over the country to fish for black bream there. It’s known for it.
“The take of bream by charter boats and angling in general is miniscule in comparison to the take by commercial activity. Yet I believe the restrictions will be disproportionately felt by the angling community because we fish within the reef system.”
The main concerns surrounding fishing activity management include a reduction in the number of fish each angler is allowed to keep, a ban on dropping anchor while fishing in the conservation zone and a blanket ban on fishing in the zone during the breeding months.
Mr Vale said: “If they turned around and said ‘we’ll let you have a bag limit of two’ I wouldn’t get any customers.
“Also, whether they caught two fish or 20 fish, it would make no difference to the stock level. They’re prolific. You haven’t got enough anglers in the county to take enough fish to affect stock. Whereas one trawl will take out a whole shoal. Whether it’s three or five doesn’t make a difference to the shoal, but it makes a huge difference to my business.”
Members of the Angling Trust Sussex Marine Region have created a voluntary code of conduct to show IFCA and Natural England that they are serious about conserving the Kingmere.
The code applies to the bream breeding months (April to June). It includes a daily bag limit of five fish per angler, the use of ‘sacrificial’ anchors when fishing the reef at anchor, an agreement to return all female black bream in roe, the use of fine wire hooks, wet hands before handling bream intended for release, hold bream with a wet cloth while unhooking, return the fish as soon as possible and retain bleeding bream.
Sean Ashworth, deputy chief officer for Sussex IFCA, was not willing to answer specific questions surrounding the concerns of anglers but did state the organisation would carry on working in partnership with all stakeholders to ‘further the conservation objectives’.
He added that IFCA supported the angling trust’s code of conduct but stated that the authority did not specifically request it.
“There is a positive,” said Mr Ashworth.
“We believe it’s one of the only marine conservation zones in the country where fish are being looked after, as opposed to seabed habitats.”
“It may be the recreational sea anglers are paying close attention because it’s the first time they’ve been managed.”
Tim Macpherson, director of the Angling Trust Sussex Marine Region, said as conservationists its members supported the creation of the zone.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t know about it. It’s a fantastic thing for Sussex and for Worthing, Shoreham and Littlehampton to have this little jewel off the coast. I think for the towns and the seaside people along here it’s another way of selling the area as a tourist attraction almost.”
However, he said the marine conservation zone would work only if commercial fishing was restricted not just in the zone itself but in surrounding waters.
According to the trust, after black bream hatch in the Kingmere they travel towards the shore where they spend two or three years growing before forming a breeding shoal. Commercial pair trawlers comb the area between the shore and Kingmere picking up a vast amount of fish.
Trust secretary Reg Phillips said: “The pair trawlers are the problem. They go along, catch all the bream and smash the nests to pieces and that’s it, that’s that season over.
Mr Macpherson added: “They are saying they don’t target bream. When you go along in a massive pair trawl you’re going to get everything. We want not only management measures for the reef but also management measures to restrict commercial trawling in the entire area from Selsey to Brighton.”