Catching Crabs A sustainability success story

For centuries, fishermen have headed for the sea from the harbours and estuaries of Devon in the south west of England in search of brown crabs and lobsters. Ensuring a long-term supply of these shellfish - and the livelihoods that rely on them - is something of a sustainability success story, but it took a period of conflict to produce a long-term solution.

For hundreds of years most fishermen used small rowing boats near the coast in coves and around treacherous rocks. They used only a few pots made from 'withy', or willow (title picture), to trap their crabs. Sustainability was 'baked in' to the process as the means of harvest didn't outstrip supply and the demand was primarily driven by the food needs of the fisherman's family with any excess going to local markets.

Today, the skippers and crews of large, powerful fishing boats - 'crabbers' - go further afield and drop lines of hundreds of steel pots, baited with dead fish or artificial lures. They recover the lines with powered winches, empty the catch into tanks, rebait the pots and set them again for collection in a few days.

There's now a worldwide appetite for Devon crab with the main markets in Europe, while some crabs are even whisked off to Heathrow to be transported - alive - to China. If you want to reduce your seafood platter's carbon footprint (and especially if you haven't tried crab before), then then there's another excellent reason to visit sunny south Devon on a break or holiday.

Crab boats - 'crabbers' - moored on the River Dart in Dartmouth harbour

But between the good old, bad old days of rowing boats and the increased mechanisation of fishing in the 1970s, territorial conflicts between crabbers and trawlers were common as skippers jostled to fish the same areas. Apart from the cost of the 'assured mutual destruction' of pot and net, there was also concern about the long-term effects of this war on the shellfish population, prompting efforts to conserve stocks of crabs in inshore fishing grounds. A mediation between all parties resulted in the Inshore Potting Agreement which came into force in 1978. It defines when and where fishing boats could lay pots for crabs and where others could trawl for scallops and fish. The agreement covers a 500 square kilometer area of the Channel off South Devon.

After nearly 40 years, this conflict resolution project is still in place and has had the effect of balancing the economic, environmental and social factors inherent in fishing. This long-term approach has produced a sustainable fishery, from which fishermen can take a regular, high value harvest now and for the future. It's a win for the environment, businesses and the economy, and also a small but significant effort that helps deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 14 - 'Life Below Water'.

Today's steel-framed pots covered with nylon netting have replaced the traditional willow pots

But the brown crab is not the only success story. Until the latter part of last century, the spider crab, which is also caught in the same pots as the brown crab, was thrown overboard as there was no ready market for this gangly crustacean in the UK. Remember, this was the UK of the 1970s, when food was considered exotic (or inedible) if it had been within 1,000 meters of a clove of garlic. Later, Devon fish dealers spotted a market in France and instead of being discarded, the spider crab was landed and sent in chilled transporters to France. That trade continues and while the majority of spider crabs are still exported, there are now also efforts to sell more in the UK.

The National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) lookout at Froward Point, near Dartmouth, overlooking the fishery governed by the Inshore Potting Agreement, in Start Bay

The freshest crabs, destined for local fishmongers and restaurants, are landed live on the quay. It's a lucky chef who can walk from a quayside restaurant when they see a friend's crabber coming into harbour to buy crabs direct from the skipper for the evening service. But they short walk shortens the supply chain from 'pot to plate' to only a few meters, and in doing so contributes in some way to the sustainability of the dish.

And to come full circle to the days of rowing crab boats, a few skilled craftsmen and women, still make traditional pots using weaving techniques perfected hundreds of years ago. One of them is Dave French who is on Twitter as @crabpotdave. Dave runs his own business and is a fifth generation craftsman who uses renewable sources of willow to fashion the 'inkpot' crabpot. You could fish with them, but his customers generally use them for decoration in the home or garden. The pictures of the traditional pots on this post are not only his pics, but they're of his pots too.

Dave French's withy crab pot
Created By
Adam Roscoe
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