Sustainable Crab Fishing - How They Are Getting It Right


Rosie holding a large male crab. Underweight crabs and females with eggs are returned to the sea.

Inspired by a work colleague, conservationist Rosie Magudia braves a stomach churning day on a small vessel in order to discover why the South West crab fisheries are some of the most sustainable in Europe.
If fishers and scientists work together, we can work this out, before it’s too late

It was very, very dark and mercilessly early as I hauled my cling-film covered camera and food-stuffed rucksack into the wheelhouse. Having clipped the lifejacket over my four layers of clothing (thermals to waterproofs), I settled onto the bench and anxiously popped another travel sickness pill.

I was onboard a crabbing boat in Dartmouth harbour and was about to spend the day fishing. I was there to shadow biologist Emma Pearson, who for the past year has been working closely with the Devon crabbers, committing herself to a year of 3am starts, 14 hour fishing days and boats with no loo – all in the name of data collection.

Inspired in the office, shadowing such a heroine had seemed “fun”. Cold and concerned on the boat, my enthusiasm now appeared rash. “It is what it is”, Emma shrugged. 

And indeed, moping certainly had no place on this boat. Skipper and third generation shell-fishermen Alan Steer purposefully strode onto the aptly named “Superb-us”. As he and his deckhand Paul bustled their way through a well-practiced morning routine in the quiet drizzle, I realised I’d better look lively.

Gratefully, I grasped a proffered cup of tea (an unexpected but welcome pleasure), gnawed on a banana and kept my eyes on the horizon.  We began to chug out of Dartmouth. 

Sailing out to sea, conversation turned to conservation. As recently highlighted by the BBC series, “The Fisherman’s Apprentice with Monty Halls” (a favoured topic of discussion) – the South West crab fisheries are some of the most sustainable in Europe. 

In part, this is due to their fishing methods. Crab fishers use “pots” - rope-wire mesh traps, each weighing about 30kg, which sit on the seabed. “Because pots are a type of “static” fishing gear and don’t move around, pots cause little damage to anything other than crab” explained Emma.

This is borne out by research on all manner of issues, from scallop gonad size to the richness of the biodiversity in their environs, all of which suggests that the traps have a relatively light footprint on the sea floor.   

But at this point in the conversation, I wasn’t feeling too chipper. My initial stoicism began to wane, and despite pot crab trap chat, the hour or so spent sailing out to the fishing grounds ended in a swift exit from the snug wheelhouse. Left hanging over the side of the boat, I grimly eyeballed the grey slop below, and considered the next 14 hours.  I already needed the bathroom. 

If fishers and scientists work together, we can work this out, before it’s too late

Yet as Alan, Paul and Emma started their work, morning business became full of distractions and I sheepishly stood by to watch. Paul got to work cutting up bait, flashing blades of steel in the morning sun, while Alan operated the winch at the front of the boat.

On hauling the pots to the boat’s lip, Alan would open the trap door and sort the crabs inside. Underweight crabs, moulting crabs and “berried females” (i.e. those carrying eggs) were all returned to the water. The rest were sorted into males and females and the empty pots passed to Paul who fitted them with fresh bait.

Returning crabs to sea when you’ve been spending all day trying to catch them may seem counterintuitive – but this is a conservation measure. Ensuring that all egg laying females and young crabs are left to mate means that the population has time to continue to replenish itself. And throughout his work, Alan’s activity was accompanied by identifying calls of “Cock, hen, soft cock, berried” – all of which meant Emma could record the entire catch data in full.  

Which takes us on to perhaps the fishers’ most important commitment to sustainably: working with scientists such as Emma. Elsewhere, fishers and scientists are frequently found in conflict and as a result of that, according to some, 70% of Europe’s seas are overfished. Even more dire projections suggest there won’t be many fish left in the sea by 2050.

Biologist Emma’s work is part of the “GAP2 project”, an innovative European- wide project, helping scientists and fishers to work together: “Fishermen working with scientists has been an ongoing thing for several years, but it’s always been a them and us scenario. It’s almost been as though the fishermen are not working with the scientists, but against the scientists” explained Alan.

Now the situation is changing Alan explained why: “It’s a little bit of give from both sides. The scientists have realised they’ve got to work with the fisherman and that they need to understand exactly how the industry  works. The fishermen are understanding that it’s something that we have to do for the future of the industry”. 

Of course, “collaboration” isn’t always as simple as it sounds. There are obstacles such as scientists’ preference for technical jargon and indecipherable abbreviations . Fishers face problems of dwindling fish stocks and incomes, and so for some, resisting the dash-for-cash in lieu of the long-term goal of sustainability, requires a sizeable shift in thinking. And both sides hold preconceived ideas of one another’s set ideas. 

But relationship building - and this kind of on-the-boat collaboration - is crucial to solving these issues. As Emma concluded: “people deal with people at the end of the day”, “crabbers’ incomes, livelihoods and communities are at stake. If we work together, we can work this out, before it’s too late”. 

After a long day fishing, with crab bins full and several lobsters to boot, it was with a mixture of regret and relief that I heard Alan announce we were making our way back to land. With time for another cup of tea, we got round to talking about why Alan fishes.

“I love being a crab fishermen because it’s not just a job, it’s an entire way of life. Being on the water, being in charge of your life and never really knowing what you’re going to catch. I don’t think I could do anything else – it’s just in my blood”. And his hopes for the future? “A profitable sustainable fishery for the future that I can pass on to my lads”.

Arriving in port, my photo was taken with the largest cock-crab we could find. A fitting end to a crabby day ...

And here’s hoping that Alan’s hopes for the future will come true, and that I’m not inspired to any more adventuring by any other heroic lady scientists anytime soon.

Rosie Magudia works for the marine conservation charity SeaWeb. The GAP2 website can be found at and Rosie's personal blog is here "

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