Before I start this section let me categorically state that I’m a “hobbyist” lobster fisherman. To make a living at lobster fishing I would need a commercial licence before I’d be able to sell any of my catch. I’m only hauling a handful of creels from the rocks near my home and on a good day I only catch one or two lobsters and an occasional brown crab (partan), and on a normal day I catch nothing at all. Anything I do catch goes straight in the pot and is consumed by family, friends and neighbours.
I thought I’d better make that point clear at the outset and get it out in the open just in case some of the marine fishery authorities are reading this and thought about taking an unhealthy interest in me. Okay, that’s my personal disclaimer out of the way.
For those of you who have reached this point you will know already that I have a soft spot for creel fishing, a pastime I pursue from my home over the summer months and something I have been doing since the 1990’s. Over the years the lobster fishing industry has changed a lot, and current regulations differ greatly from those that the old fishers faced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Things had to change to maintain and preserve lobster stocks around the country.
One of the changes in recent years is the introduction of v-notching as a method of stock conversion. The aim of v-notching programmes is to remove breeding females from the fishery thereby increasing the potential fecundity of the population. Legally landed lobsters must also have a minimum 87 millimetres carapace and anything smaller than that should be returned to the sea. From what I’ve seen in recent years we are in good shape because I catch as many “under-sized” lobsters as I do “legal” ones and, yes, the small ones go straight back in the briny.
Around the British coasts the catching of lobsters and edible crabs is of considerable importance. In the early years the fishing industry around Portlethen focussed on line fishing and to a lesser extent herring fishing however there were a few individual boats that targeted lobsters and crabs (partans). Generally speaking this would have been a supplemental activity in addition to the fishers primary goal of white fishing however one or two boats may have been built exclusively with creel fishing in mind.
Before the early 1800's, much of the local fishing activity was related to domestic consumption although there were commercial aspects associated with herring, cod, haddock and ling. Early fishing records and statistics make little mention of lobster and crab fishing and it’s not until we reach the mid 1800’s we start seeing some references to shellfish. This may have been because there were no ready markets for this particular seafood until that time.
Markets (and tastes) changed as the 19th century progressed and this was likely to have been a direct result of the development of transport links with the rest of the country. This meant that there was an increased demand for a product which was previously viewed by the local communities as specialised, marginalised or too luxurious to pursue.
As the white fishing industry diminished in the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century it may have been seen as a natural progression for many of the local fishing population to change their alliance from fish to crustaceans but that didn’t really happen although a few small boats did continue to specialise in lobster fishing. However once we arrived at the middle of the 20th century the only commercial fishing still happening in Downies, Portlethen and Findon was lobster fishing (we’ll ignore salmon fishing which lasted in Portlethen until 1980). It would appear that although lobsters could fetch a fantastic price they weren’t abundant enough around our coasts to sustain a livelihood for more than just a handful of fishermen.
By the 1970’s and 1980’s there were still a few of the local population working substantial numbers of creels around our coast, however in general, these people had other jobs to do and they would have considered lobster fishing to be a secondary job.
Today lobster fishing is alive and well and there are a few small boats that ply this trade up and down the coast of Kincardineshire, some of these fishers are hobbyists like myself but there are others who, using larger vessels with proper hauling equipment, do this commercially and these boats can work upwards of 500 creels, mostly in strings of “bashers”, and in deeper waters well away from the inshore reefs that the smaller, older boats used to work.
The principle behind all creels is the attraction of crustaceans by means of fish or other baits into a trap from which its escape is made difficult by the construction of eyes, doors and in some cases parlours. The design of a creel is both clever and intriguing. Normally a creel consists of a rectangular base of wooden spars, into this base are drilled three “bows”, which can be made of wood, a hollow plastic tube or steel. The completed frame is covered with small mesh netting from the base upwards, with appropriate “eyes” cut out to allow entrance, a “door” to allow removal of the catch and a bait string or bait bag to hold the bait in place inside the creel. The whole construction is weighed down by concrete laid in the base, or in older days, a heavy stone tied into position. Finally each creel, or string of creels, has a length of rope attached with float(s) near the head to ensure the creel is easy to locate in the water and, of course, to allow hauling from the seabed.
This brief description explains the basic premise of a creel and a better visual explanation can be found if you look at the photographs found on this page. Nowadays there are a variety of different designs for creels and the steel framed ones that you are likely to see adorning small harbours and shores throughout Scotland have grown more popular in recent years, possibly because they are more robust and likely to withstand a battering in stormy weather when compared with the more traditional old fashioned creels which tended to be washed ashore and wrecked easily.
In the north east of Scotland it would have been rare to have found a traditional lobster pot like those found more commonly in southern English coasts and practically all the traps that have been used on our coasts have been of the D-shaped design that you see today.
Perhaps the greatest advance in creel design has been the development of the parlour creel, so called because the interior of the creel is divided into two sections by a mesh funnel. Once the lobster has entered the second chamber or “parlour” of the creel it is very difficult for it to escape. The superior retentive quality of the parlour creel means that it may be left in the water for several days without any lobsters escaping from it.
In early years the fishers would have set their creels to capture one of two crustaceans – the lobster or the edible brown crab, which we know locally as the partan. This is still the case today with lobsters and partans being the catch of choice for any creel fishers. A third crustacean has entered the market over recent years, that of the Velvet Crab. This small crab is now a quite common sight in local creels and although not a popular local dish there appears to be a thriving market for them in France and Spain.
With each passing year I catch an increasing amount of velvet crabs, sometimes as many as ten in any one creel however those go straight back in the water. Out of curiosity I cooked a selection of them once and found that I didn’t enjoy them as much as partan or lobster. They are small and fiddly, difficult to extract meat from, and probably the look of their hairy toes, red eyes and sharp, spiny shells went some way to putting me off as well.
The fourth crustacean that is fished commercially in Scottish coastal waters is the Norwegian Lobster, also known as the Dublin Bay prawn, langoustine or Nephrops norvegicus, I won’t go into any detail about this particular crustacean as they are not a common catch off the coast of Kincardineshire and are more regularly found in the waters off northern or western coasts.
Baited creels are an attraction for a variety of marine life and you’ll often find an unexpected surprise waiting for you once you’ve hauled a creel. Over the years I’ve seen a variety of fish and sea life and it’s common to catch rock cod, saithe, the occasional pollack, sea scorpions (known locally as guntee pluckers) which are good to re-use as creel bait, octopus (not a good sign as they prey on lobster), a variety of sizes of conger eels (again not a good sign – tip up the creel and let them slide back into the sea), a variety of starfish and the occasional sea urchin. Usually over the course of one fishing season I see at least one of each of the above species trapped in one of my creels.
Typically the lobster season for inshore fishing runs from April to early June and then again from August through to October. It is possible to start earlier in the year than this and run a little later but the risk of losing creels increases with the possibility of storms driving creels ashore when they are positioned close to rocks and reefs. In the early spring, late autumn and throughout winter it is safer and more feasible to set creels in deeper water away from the shoreline and it’s just as likely to catch a lobster there as it is close to the rocks, by then the lobsters are generally on the move.
That leaves the summer months of June and July, which are very likely to be quiet months as far as lobster fishing is concerned. This is because these months are typically the time of year that lobsters “hole up” and cast off their old shells. Once their new shells start to harden, which usually takes a few weeks, the lobsters are more likely to move around the seabed once again.
Of course, it’s very hard to predict how good a lobster season is going to be. There are good years and bad years – during one good season I caught a total of fifty legally sized lobsters over the course of four months and during one bad season I only caught three lobsters over the same period of time; the season’s can vary by as much as a few weeks; some years there are spates of small undersized lobsters and there are other years where you hardly see an undersized lobster at all. What I can say is that the lobster is a very unpredictable crustacean and it may have been this unpredictability along our coasts that resulted in our old fishers not pursuing lobster fishing to the same extent as some other fishing communities around Scotland.