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'.