Arriving on the wind-swept beachfront and standing on the sturdy sea wall, looking beyond the groynes into the turbulent North Sea, its a stretch of the imagination to believe there is anything much to see below the waves.
Ironically these cold, murky waters bely the diversity of life on the seabed giving no clue that this area provides a large proportion of one of Yorkshires finest culinary exports and best kept secrets.
The Yorkshire coast crab and lobster industry is the largest in the UK. In 2011, there were 1350 tons of edible crab & 545 tons lobster registered inside 6 nautical miles, worth £7-9 million.
The Withernsea lobster fishery alone contributes an estimated £1 million. 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 on the Holderness Coast has promoted the perfect habitat for crab and lobster of cobbles, pebbles and sandy mud.
The seabed off Withernsea is indicative of the Holderness Coast with a mixed ground of cobbles, pebbles and sandy mud. All covered in marine life from sponges & hydroids to anemones and flatfish.
The mixture of habitats in this area and they life they support are the reason this section of the Holderness coast has also been proposed as Marine Conservation Zone.
Potting is one of the lowest impact, selective fishing methods available and many Yorkshire shellfish fishermen are putting the environment and quality of the product at the very forefront of what they do.
Under the guidance of John White a seasoned fishermen from Withernsea, the crew of the Crazy Cat use a variety of techniques to ensure their catch is of the best possible quality and is collected in an environmentally responsible way.
After years at sea himself, John now oversees the daily launching and recovery of Crazy Cat but has handed it over to Chris to skipper and Nathan to crew.
The crew of the Crazy Cat; John White, Christian Thorpe (21) and Nathan Phillips (18).
The crew of the Crazy Cat use a variety of methods to ensure the long term viability of their livelihoods and the long term protection of the ecosystem on which they depend.
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 assemble is known as a fleet.
Each of John’s 48 fleets has 15 pots and is marked at the surface by a brightly coloured buoy.
Each time a fleet is hauled its replaced elsewhere to rotate the area of seabed being covered.
Shellfish pots vary in design but the most commonly used on the Yorkshire coast is called a parlour pot (parlour being the area the animal crawls into). Rectangular in shape, it rests on the seabed
Each pot is baited using the waste product from another fishery; usually salmon heads.
Once hauled, each pot is cleared by hand with undersized, berried (females with eggs) soft and crippled animals all being returned to the sea.
The installation of ‘soft bottoms’, (a plastic board with holes) prevent damage to shellfish legs as the pots are hauled. This reduces the number sold as cripples or wasted as discards also increasing the quality of the end product.
Escape gaps are yet another voluntary measure to promote good management of the fishery. They are small (80 x 46mm) plastic rectangles fitted into the end of each pot to crucially allow lobsters and non-target species to escape.
In addition to allowing escape for animals unsuitable for market it also saves juvenile lobsters from predation from adult lobsters whilst in the pot. John’s 700 pots have escape gaps in every one.
Over time, escape gaps provide settlement space and habitat for other marine organisms. The gaps pictured here are encrusted in a colonial animal called a Bryozoan (Bryo meaning mossy, zoa meaning animals).
On closer inspection, you can see the feeding tentacles of the Bryozoan called lophophores which drawn in food particles from the surrounding water.
Measuring a Common Lobster to check it meets the minimum landing size of 87mm carapace length.
V notching is a painless procedure of clipping a small V shaped notch into the side fin of the lobsters tail.
V notching is applied to all cripples (animals with one claw), lobsters over 3lbs (not suitable for market) and perhaps most importantly,all berried females (lobsters with eggs).
Although currently a voluntary measure, the crew of the Crazy Cat V notch every lobster meeting the criteria. Once an animal is V-notched and returned to sea, its then illegal to land by any other vessel whilst the V notch remains.
The time it takes for the V notch to grow out gives the lobsters chance to reproduce and grow ensuring a quality product and a better price for the fishermen in the future.
John and his crew voluntarily land edible crab at a minimum of 140mm despite the legal limit being 130mm. This extra time left to mature ensures a much bulkier crab with firmer white meat.
Crab and lobster shed their shells (a process called moulting) to allow for growth and reproduction. At certain times of year, only cock crabs (males) will be selected as the females are still soft.
If caught when soft the resulting meat is poor and not good for consumption turning to an unpleasant tasting mush when cooked. Each individual animal is checked when emptying pots to ensure that no soft-shelled animals are landed.
Of frustration to John and other fishermen is the lack of identity bestowed upon their catch. On landing, lobsters are put in a crate with a paper landing ticket. The crates are loaded into an unbranded, cold van and driven to Bridlington.
Here the tickets are lost, the catch becomes nameless and is combined with the hundreds of other lobsters which have been landed from elsewhere.
The price paid to fishermen can be wildly disparate to that paid by the consumer. The average for fishermen is £10/ kg (can be as low as £6.50/kg) for lobster but once processed and sold on, it can rise to anything from £15 to £29/kg.
The local fishmongers in Withernsea, Winghams buys some of Johns brown crab catch on a daily basis, after boiling and dressing, the crabs command a much higher price than the fishermen receive.
Although proudly labelled as Withernsea crab in Winghams shop in town, the crab John sells elsewhere can often be mistakenly sold as Whitby or even Cromer crab as these more recognised fisheries command higher saleability.
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 futures but in that of the fishery itself.
With funding from the European Fisheries Fund Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are working with John and other fisherman to raise awareness of the links between a productive fishing industry and a healthy marine environment.
By working together and gaining a clearer understanding of the industry and its market, we hope to raise the profile of the fantastic quality shellfish caught off the Yorkshire Coast.