Magna Carta and maritime charts dating back to the time of the Spanish Armada had a part to play in the High Court’s decision that fishermen who trawled for cockles in a private fishery without authority must pay damages for trespass. The court ruled that the fishermen had infringed exclusive fishing rights and were liable to pay compensation to reflect the value of the illicit cockles landed.
Members of the Le Strange family have for centuries enjoyed private fishing rights over parts of the Wash, in East Anglia. However, the existence of the private fishery has long been a bone of contention amongst local fishing boat owners. During the summer months of 2007, several of them raised their colours in protest amidst the fishery, bringing down the wrath of John Loose whose family have for generations operated the fishery as tenants of the Le Strange estate.
In ordering the fishermen to pay damages to Mr Loose, the court noted that private fisheries are very rare and that the Crown has been prevented from granting any such exclusive rights since Magna Carta was signed in 1215. However, private fisheries established before the death of Henry II, in 1189, are still in existence and the Le Strange family had established its right to the fishery under the doctrine of prescription on the basis of long user.
Sir William Blackburne analysed historic documents and maritime charts – the oldest dating back to 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada – in determining the precise extent of the private fishery. Finding that 13 fishing boats had trespassed upon the fishery between July 26 and September 10 2007, the judge said they were ‘not simply there for the fun of it but were there to fish for cockles and were successful in their search for them’.
Mr Loose had claimed more than £500,000 damages from the fishermen, but the judge found that he had not proved a loss approaching that sum. However, he also said he was not convinced that the quantities of ‘illicit’ cockles landed were as small as the trespassers claimed. It was left to the parties to calculate the precise quantity and value of the cockles landed by the trespassing vessels and the sums in damages payable.