My First Year at Sea

Emma Pearson is one of the scientists involved in the GAP2 UK case study, assessing brown crab populations. To be able to work with the fishermen involved, she moved to rural Devon (in the UK’s South West), and spent much of the first year of her Phd at sea with the local fishermen.

It’s June 2011. I’m sat on the drive at home with the car packed to the rafters, waving goodbye to everyone and everything I know, ready for the four-hour drive to Slapton, South Devon.

Just a month before, I had started my PhD at the University of Leicester. Waiting at the end of this drive was a year to be spent living the life of a fisherman-cum-scientist, collecting data on the catch and discards of the south Devon crabbing fleet…


At this point, if you watched Monty Halls’ ‘The Fisherman’s Apprentice’ then you need read no further. Swap me for Monty (minus the seasickness), swap his mentor Nigel Legge for my landlady Val Mercer, swap Cadgwith for south Devon (better pasties) and swap Reuben the dog for Barnes the cat and you’ve got it all wrapped up.

Unlike Monty though, I wasn’t in Devon to learn how to catch crab as a fisherman, I was there to collect as much data as possible on the amount of Edible crab being caught and discarded in time and space. The ultimate aim of my work was to create a model, which the fishermen themselves could use to decide what to sustainably catch the next season.

So after the long drive and lugging everything I owned up endless steps and stairs to my fourth floor room for the next year (with a view of approx. 1cm2 of sea, if a certain tree had lost the right leaves), I got to know Val and family, the quaint village of Slapton and the sea beyond. The next day, amongst unpacking my worldly possessions, I started calling around local fishermen, explaining what the project was about and asking if they would take me out to sea. Eight fishers agreed who representatively sampled the crabbing grounds, known locally as the Inshore Potting Area (IPA).

I was all set to begin…

I woke up with a start. Who IS ringing me at this god-forsaken hour? It’s June and IT’S DARK! In fact, no one was calling me (crisis averted in a Peter Kay, who’s calling at this time of the night scenario); it was my alarm clock. It was 03:15, the start of my first day at sea. For someone who only a year or two before was at university, and was more than happy to be asleep at this hour, this was a SHOCKER. I hauled myself out of bed, sped through the evolution of the homo sapiens from Neolithic grunting human to fairly compos mentis within 15 minutes and found myself dazed standing on the beach. Top to toe in full bright orange and yellow oilskins, I waited in the pitch dark; waiting for a man I’d never met to take me to sea for 16 hours. If only my mother knew.

It turned out going to sea each day felt like going home. I loved every minute. As someone hailing from a village only a few miles away from the town that has the title of the point furthest from the sea in the UK, Ashby-de-la-Zouch (it’s in the name!), I put the feeling down to novelty at first. But still I feel strangely calm and settled, by the mysteries the sea beholds and the apparent vast nothingness from the surface.

The sound track to my year collecting data was Radio 2 with the steady rhythm of ‘soft cock, small hen, small cock, soft hen, LOBSTER!’. The catching of a lobster is always a celebration for a fisherman. I would work closely with local fishers, some now good friends to record the days catch and discards as they came out of the pots, each string of 60 pots interluded with a cuppa of various qualities and friendly banter throughout.

All the fishers and everyone who has since heard about my chosen receptacle for toileting, while aboard fishing boats, has had great amusement. Its easy for the fishermen; they just do what they wish over the side. But for ladies, its isn’t so straight forward. I did contemplate a She-wee. Yet the thought of men I didn’t yet know, who hadn’t encountered the genius of a She-wee’s abilities to enable ladies to wee while standing, wondering just how or indeed, why I was standing like they do to take a pee, was too much to bear. So I went for the more tradition bucket approach, thus annulling any possibilities of being washed overboard by a rogue wave while peeing, or indeed exposing any unwanted full moons not inline with the usual lunar cycle. Adorned with its pirate-like skull and crossbones (or in my line of work the scientific symbol for ‘Toxic’) the usage of my pee bucket, was aired many times over the radio to other boats in the vicinity. It’s always great to know that anyone on the same radio frequency within a good 15 miles knew what I was up to.

Among these light heart reminiscences though is a message I’d like to convey…

Fishers fish because it’s what they love, it’s tradition, fishing has probably been in their blood for four to five generations. For the hours they work and effort they exude, inshore fishermen don’t get paid that much. Without them risking life and limb, you wouldn’t ever have experienced the delights of crab cakes for tea or the enjoyment of a crab sandwich on the sea front. In fact, in most cases you wouldn’t be sat on the seafront on holiday, as most, now tourist seaside towns were founded on fishing ports.

In my mind, after a year of first hand experience, the key to future sustainable small scale fisheries, not just rests on securing that the fish are sustainably caught, but that the fishermen are sustainably managed by the powers that be too. Without the fishermen, there won’t be any fish for tea. The right balance is crucial.

You can read more about the Devon case study here.

This entry was posted in Case Study 1 - Brown Crab, Homepage News, News, News, Q4 2013 Newsletter and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.