The Orkney islands lie north of mainland Scotland, where tidal flows and winds are strong, and storms frequent. The islands are surrounded to a large extent by rocky reef habitat, providing excellent homes and feeding grounds for species like crabs and lobsters. These reefs make large areas unsuitable for trawler fishing, but smaller vessels such as ‘creelers’ can reach them.
This fishing ground is long established and of huge economic importance for Scottish fishing vessels, with average annual landings of over 1,800 tonnes of brown crab over the last 30 years. This fishery here harvests a significant portion of Scotland’s total brown crab catch – around 25% - providing an important source of income for the many fishermen whose livelihoods depend on this.
Crabs and lobster are mostly caught using baited pots and creels which are large containers designed to catch the crabs, as opposed to nets that catch many species. As a result, creel fishing generally imposes less impact on the marine environment, as fishing vessels tend to be smaller and there is little bycatch (unwanted species that are caught and thrown away).
However the Orkney brown crab faces a number of issues. There isn’t a definitive idea of how the species is fairing, such as population size and locations of the crabs during different seasons. Some assessments have been done on the brown crab in the UK and Scottish waters, but Orkney’s population remains unclear.
The European Commission has legislation under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which regulates fishing fleets and conserves fish stocks, with the vision that fisheries in the European waters will be managed sustainably. The CFP sets a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for some commercially important species, but doesn’t currently include the Orkney brown crab. There’s also a lack of harvest strategy, which manages how and when species can be fished. All of these issues poses a real threat and could lead to potential overfishing of brown crab.
There’s a Fisheries Improvement Plan (FIP) for the Orkney brown crab fishery, which has supported the fishery to enter the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification programme in 2017. MSC is an independent eco-label and certification scheme to ensure seafood harvested from certified fisheries are sustainable.
Fisheries Improvement Plan (FIP) participants
The participants of the Orkney brown crab FIP all support the fishery to be more sustainable through various activities including scientific research to understand the biology if the crab and lobster, fisheries policy advocacy to create a better fisheries management system, promotion of the FIP project to allow other crab fisheries to follow, technical and financial contribution to ensure the project is well implemented. .
Participants involved in this FIP include Orkney Sustainable Fisheries Ltd (OSF), Orkney Fishermen’s Society (OFS), M&S, WWF, Marine Scotland, Scottish National Heritage, Crown Estate, Orkney Islands Council, MSC and local fishermen.