Yorkshire Wildlife Trust goes to sea in support of the county's fishing industry

PUBLISHED: 21:55 26 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:13 20 February 2013

Nathan Phillips and Christian Thorpe of the Crazy Cat at work

Nathan Phillips and Christian Thorpe of the Crazy Cat at work

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust goes to sea in support of the county's fishing industry. Kat Sanders, a marine awareness officer and researcher, explains why

Its difficult to imagine while standing here on the windswept beachfront at Withernsea what could survive beneath the waves of the turbulent North Sea. But these cold, murky waters hold the potential to provide a significant contribution to this Yorkshire seaside town. The rough sea belies the diversity of life on the seabed and one of Yorkshires finest culinary exports.

The shellfish industry on the East Yorkshire coast is the largest in the UK, landing over 30,000 tonnes of crab and lobster every year worth between 7million and 9 million; the Withernsea lobster fishery alone contributing an estimated 1million. The 73 registered fishing vessels across Holderness together provide income for over 200 families and contribute 35 million a year to the East Riding economy.

Since 2000 a designated No Trawl Zone - from Spurn to north of Hornsea - has allowed this area of seabed to thrive and develop and so create an ideal habitat of cobbles, pebbles and sandy mud, perfect for crab and lobster. These two shellfish form the backbone of Yorkshires fishing industry.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, through its Living Seas programme is embarking on a project that will help develop our knowledge and understanding of Yorkshires shellfishery. We began to do this by spending time with a local Withernsea crew learning about the way they fish.

Under the guidance of John White, a seasoned fisherman, the crew of the Crazy Cat use a variety of techniques to ensure their catch of shellfish is of the best possible quality and is collected in an environmentally conscious manner. This in turn helps to ensure the long term viability of their livelihoods and the protection of the ecosystem; a healthy fishery, in whatever form, requires a healthy marine environment in order to thrive and develop.

John has made sure that by mentoring Chris and Nathan from a young age to follow his methods he is not only investing in their future but in that of the fishery itself, something the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust believes to be fundamental for both our local shellfishery and the marine environment that supports it.

The minimum landing size of edible crab is130mm and is set by the North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority. John and his crew voluntarily land edible crab at a minimum size of 140mm allowing extra time for the LIFEindividuals to mature and ensuring a much bulkier crab with firmer white meat.

The crew take the time to check the body of every animal when emptying each pot to ensure that no soft-shelled animals are landed. Scrutiny of animals at this stage allows for soft animals to be thrown back to harden into a better quality product which commands a higher price when landed in a few months time.

Another conservation measure Johns crew are actively undertaking is a process called V-notching, a scientifically recognised method of protecting lobsters. This painless procedure involves clipping a small V shaped notch into the side of the lobsters tail fin. It is applied to all crippled lobsters (animals with one claw), lobsters over 3lbs (not suitable for market) and most importantly all berried females (lobsters with eggs).

Once an animal is V-notched and returned to the water, it cannot then be legally landed by any other vessel whilst that V-notch remains. It can take about two years for the notch to grow out which gives the lobsters a chance to reproduce and grow ensuring a better quality product for market, better price for the fishermen and time to breed and produce further young lobsters.

Potting is a simple and selective method of fishing. Pots sit on the seabed and are attached together at regular intervals along an anchored line. This is known as a fleet. Each of Johns 48 fleets has 15 pots and is marked at the surface by a brightly coloured buoy.

Escape gaps are yet another voluntary measure to promote good management of the fishery and are endorsed by the North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, the body charged with managing this area of seabed. These plastic rectangles measuring 180x90mm are fitted into the end of a pot and crucially allow undersized lobsters and non-target species to escape. Johns 700 pots have escape gaps in every one. They also have soft bottoms, (a plastic board with holes) which prevent damage to the legs of lobsters and crabs when the pots are hauled. This in turn reduces the number of animals being sold as cripples or wasted as discards.

Despite the significant time and effort by Yorkshire fishermen to produce a product of which the county can be proud, its a sad fact that over 80 per cent of Yorkshire lobster is still exported to Europe. This causes considerable frustration to local fishermen and is largely due to a limited local market. Could it be because of price, ethics, awareness or a combination of all of these factors? This is something through our wider project work we hope to find out.

Catch recognition is one of Johns biggest frustrations within the industry. On landing at Withernsea, their lobsters are put in a crate with a paper landing ticket showing the vessel number and name. The crates are loaded into an unbranded refrigerated van and driven to Bridlington where the catch is sorted and made ready for export to Europe. Here the catch becomes nameless and is combined with the hundreds of other lobsters which have been landed from up and down the coast and without knowing which fishing methods have been used.

With the exception of Winghams fishmongers in Withernsea who buy Johns crab for local sale, the rest of the catch, like the lobster has a limited line of traceability. His crab is frequently sold as Whitby or even Cromer crab because these brands sell better than Withernsea.

So without the recognition, where is the incentive to carry on with good environmental practice? John and his small crew believe their approach is right for the sake of the fishery and their livelihoods. However, as small-scale fishing becomes more difficult because of the rising cost of fuel and bait combined with falling prices paid for the shellfish, there may come a time where this is no longer financially viable.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is working with local shell fishermen to raise awareness of the links between a productive fishing industry and a healthy marine environment.


Their work is supported by the European Fisheries Fund through the Holderness Fisheries Local Action Group. Together we want to develop greater interest and a strong market for quality shellfish caught off the Yorkshire coast as well as a healthy marine environment for the future.
John adds: The fishing industry gets lot of bad press and I wish more could be done to showcase all the positive things that the industry does.

If you would like to hear more about Yorkshire Wildlife Trusts Living Seas work, have any comments or are part of the fishing industry and would like to get involved in this project please email livingseas@ywt.org.uk or call 01904 659570.

Living Seas Centre

The Living Seas Centre is based at Flamborough Head. Its an education centre which aims to encourage people to discover the wonderful and little-understood wildlife that lives hidden beneath the waves.


This exciting world is brought to life with inspiring displays, interactive interpretation and an innovative education and events programme.

For visiting school groups there are unique outdoor learning experience with activities linked to all areas of the school curriculum. Families and members of the public can simply pop in, or take part in one of our guided events. Rockpooling, arts and crafts, boat trips and scavenger hunts will be on offer alongside special theme days focussing on some of our favourite marine animals. An exciting new snorkel programme is also being developed to allow the curious to come face to face with fish


The Living Seas Centre will also be the hub of Yorkshires wider Living Seas work. This includes ongoing work with the seafood and fisheries programme; an innovative outreach activity, Undersea Explorers, run at swimming pools right across the county alongside some exciting survey projects which will help us better understand the diverse local marine life and habitats.

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