Ned Bailey has spent the best part of four decades fishing off the south coast of Cornwall. Today, in his yellow oilskins and accompanied by his wind-tousled collie spaniel, the 58-year-old is doing the rounds in the Falmouth estuary, hauling up a string of rust-darkened lobster pots.
He tosses out stray crabs, several starfish and a squirming conger eel. Every so often he pulls out a lobster: if it’s over 90mm (3.5in) long, he keeps it; if not, it’s thrown back into the sea, in line with regulations.
But today, one lobster, the underside of its tail bursting with clusters of inky-black eggs, is kept aside. This is a berried hen, a pregnant female, carrying about 20,000 eggs.
Bailey cuts a small “V” into its dappled royal-blue and yellow tail before gently laying the lobster back in the water. Now she is marked as illegal for others to land – and with any luck her reproductive potential is secured for a few more years.
V-notching is a conservation method used to help replenish lobster stocks. Depending on who you ask, it is either a helpful way to safeguard the future of lobsters or a “bit of a nightmare”. Some trace the origins of the practice back to the Orkney Islands, others to the Gulf of Maine on the east coast of the US (where it has been in use since 1917), but since 2000, the law prohibits landing V-notched lobsters and crayfish in Britain.
To Bailey, the technique is a means of self-policing, or “offsetting”, the catch he takes out of the sea. “I want there to be a viable lobster fishery when I’m not fishing [any longer],” he says. “My kids, who went to university – and unlike me use their brains more than their hands – should have something left to catch down the line.”
I want there to be a viable lobster fishery. My kids should have something left to catch
Roughly half of those fishing from commercial lobster boats in the Falmouth estuary choose to V-notch vulnerable lobsters – typically berried hens or those with a mutilated or missing claw. Clipping a section of a lobster’s tail fan is not thought to cause the crustacean pain, and it signals to others that it should be left in the crevices of rocks and reefs to grow.
Although V-notching removes a tiny portion of a catch, it is with the understanding that the lobster is worth more on the seabed, sustaining the stock, than sold at market.
“If anything happens to the lobster population where the level drops too low, then it takes a long time to recover,” says Chris Weston, a technician at the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow, some 40 miles away on Cornwall’s north coast.
For starters, lobsters grow relatively slowly, he says, taking up to seven years to reach maturity. Even though berried hens appear to be crammed with eggs, the chances of their larvae making it to adulthood are exceptionally slim. For the first four weeks, a newborn lobster is less than 1cm in size and is classed as plankton – an easy meal for ocean predators.
“In the wild, survival is 0.005%,” says Weston. “That’s maybe one or two of your 20,000 eggs making it to adulthood.”
Theoretically, as long as you’re abiding by all the rules, you can catch as much as you like throughout the year
The Padstow hatchery was founded in 2000 after the population in Norway collapsed to the point that the European lobster was classed as “near threatened”. Weston says: “Overfishing led to a crash in the population that still hasn’t recovered to anything like previous numbers.”
Unlike fish such as bass or cod, there are no EU quotas limiting the amount of lobster that can be caught. “Theoretically, as long as you’re abiding by all the rules, you can catch as much as you like throughout the year,” says Weston.
Lobster is also a coveted catch, which is integral to the cultural identity and livelihood of many Cornish fishing communities. In 2019, 278 tonnes of the shellfish delicacy were landed at ports in the county, with a value of £3.9m.
The lucrative trade means V-notching draws mixed reactions, with some weighing up the costs and benefits. “Some fishers see it as a bit of a nightmare because it takes away a certain portion of their catch,” Weston says. “We need an information campaign to encourage measures like V-notching where possible.”
Notching may also act as an extra layer of protection on top of legislation. In early 2023, two fishing companies in Cornwall were prosecuted for catching berried lobsters and together fined more than £50,000. In one case, the lobsters’ tails had been scrubbed to remove evidence of eggs.
“There may be a few unscrupulous fishermen who attempt to scrub eggs off, but minimum-size regulations and V-notching are tangible measures you can’t remove,” says Simon Cadman, principal enforcement officer at the Cornwall Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, the prosecuting body.
Although it is difficult to measure the impact of V-notching, Ireland’s Seafood Development Agency (BIM) has tried: it gives 70% of a lobster’s value if they are taken to a fisheries officer to be notched. About 40,000 lobsters were marked last year, and the agency found that – along with minimum and maximum size restrictions – V-notching helped conserve between 25% and 39% of the reproductive potential in Ireland’s lobster population.
“We’re only spending a few thousand euros on it a year, but the value in engagement and outreach has been incalculable,” says Ian Lawler at BIM. In 2022, participation from fishers was the highest on record. “It has educated the sector about conservation, and allowed fishers to contribute much more to the management of their own fishery.”
A study in the Orkney Islands fishery, which analysed the marking of 3,000 lobsters, predominantly berried hens, found that V-notching would become “self-financing” in the longer term, enhancing egg production by 25%. In Maine, V-notching has been heralded as “an exemplar for success”, with a report suggesting 87.5% of fishers interviewed approved of the V-notch law.
In Cornwall, things remain more ad hoc and are left up to fishers turned citizen scientists such as Bailey, who regularly hauls up the same pots in the same 11-mile (18km) stretch of sea, and says it is “heartening” to re-catch lobsters bearing his distinctive notch, a precise 90-degree angle.
Recently he has noticed tiny lobsters appearing in his prawn pots. Contending with large-scale fisheries can feel “like we’re swimming against the tide”, he says, but adds: “There’s a passion among small-scale fishermen to maintain their way of living to support their communities.
“I do believe the work we’re doing is making a difference.”
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