REPORT ON THE CRAB AND LOBSTER FISHERIES
Of ENGLAND AND WALES
Independent School Room, Mevagissey, Friday
15th September 1876
Frank Buckland and Spencer Walpole, Esquires
MATTHIAS DUNN (examined by Mr Buckland). Is a fish buyer. Has lived 45 years in Mevagissey, and has bought the produce of seven boats since 1874.
The season for crabs began in February and ended in August. He agreed to pay 26s per “dozen” for crabs not less than 8 inches along the back; a dozen is 26; paid the same price (26s) for two “dozen” (52) crabs under 8 inches but not less than 5 ½ inches. Crabs of less than 5 ½ inches to be sold as humps, pouchers, or shes at 2s per short dozen (12). When humps are small three are counted as two. A small hump would be about 4 inches across the back, but they are never measured. The question of size is left to the conscience of buyer and seller. The three male crabs could therefore be sold occasionally for 4d., and each of these would sometimes in a clear season, i.e. say from February to the summer of the following year, or 18 months, grow into crabs worth 1s. each. Believes that they might grow even more quickly than this, if they happened to fall in with a good feeding ground. Crabs are exceedingly full of meat before casting their shell, and he believes that young crabs will cast their shells as often as they can fill up. Never saw more than three she crabs carrying ova during the season. The ova is carried in a flap or pouch under the belly. On an average in 1874 there were three females to on male. The humps (small male crabs) were thrown in and sold with the females (she crabs), and the small male crabs would be sometimes one sixth of the whole. As the season advanced the male crabs would be even more numerous. The average catch per day during the season for the seven boats was about three large crabs, worth 1s. each.
These seven boats fish within 7 miles of the Rame head. The crab fishery extends along the coast to a distance of 3 or 3 ½ miles seawards. The Gorran Haven fishermen fish eastwards of Fowey, and the Port of Looe fishermen fish of Cornwall. He cannot speak as to beyond St. Ives, but the fishery is not prosecuted with so much avidity on the north coast as on the south. Cannot mention any cove on the south coast where crabs are not caught more or less. Scilly Islands there are many cray-fish and lobsters, but no crabs. There is very little weed for the large crabs. The large crabs live on rocky bottom, the small ones on sandy bottom. The trawlers by night find the bed of the sea covered with small crabs, which feed at night, and retire into the sand by day. The depth of water where the large crabs are caught varies from 8 to 30 fathoms. He prefers the crabs from the deepest water. The largest crabs are caught farthest out. Thinks that crabs pick up small rockling. The best bait for crabs are wrasse, shark, gurnet, & cut up. The strongest smelling bait and the highest coloured has the preference. Stinking bait no good. The white hound is preferred by fishermen because of its smell. Crabs migrate to and from the shore. In the spring, the deepest boats have the most fish. In the summer the crabs are nearer the land but more scattered. In autumn they return back to the deep water, and are lost sight of from about the middle of September to the following spring. In December he was at Plymouth, and saw humps with well-developed spawn, which had been brought in by trawlers from the sea 18 miles out. Saw three humps himself in April and May with well developed spawn; they were nearly ready to hatch their ova. The smallest humps are half an inch, and are to be seen at all times of the year; they are found in the greatest numbers in the spring, above low water spring tides, close to the land. Thinks the spawn is deposited out at sea and carried in shore by some arrangement of nature, such as the tides. They breed in the winter, and the young ones appear in the spring. The smallest crabs are as small as can be. The fishermen use ordinary crab pots, the ribs of which are not more than 2 inches apart. These pots will take crabs about 2 ½ inches across, and would catch a 2 inch crab, but not many as small as that. The fishermen do not catch crabs as small as the Norfolk “toggs,” if caught they would be thrown back.
Thinks crabs shoot their shells at least once a year, as often as they fill up. They must eat their shell more than once in 16 months to grow from 4 to 8 inches across.
The average catch of boats is only three crabs a boat per day; but they also catch lobsters, and cray fish or two, and perhaps two dozen humps. One boat could set a hundred pots. This, however is an extreme case.
(By Mr. Walpole.) Considers the present want of a law on the subject unsatisfactory, and desires to prohibit the capture of small male and female crabs, and would prohibit the capture of all crabs under 5 ½ inches. The Norfolk gauge of 4 ½ inches would be to small. This gauge 5 ½ inches would be sufficient. There would be no practical difficulty in enforcing a gauge and all the fishermen carry 8 inch gauge for selling purposes. Would compel the fishermen to carry a gauge. Never heard any objection to this and the fishermen would like it. If a gauge were in force locally, it would not pay to carry undersized crabs away to any distance; but it would be better to prohibit the possession and sale of small crabs. Would also compel the return to hibit the possession and sale of small crabs. Has only seen three crabs carrying berries. This regulation would be of no consequence to in-shore fishermen, and would only be important to the deep-sea fishermen. The latter take crabs 18 miles away from shore. As the law prohibiting capture would not apply to such a case as this, there must be a law against the possession of small crabs and if legislation is to be effective it must effect the possession even more than the capture.
Crabs are not broken up for bait on the coast near Mevagissey, only soft crabs. Thinks if it were made illegal to catch or possess small crabs that a few would be broken up for bait, but not a great many. It is cheaper to buy bait than catch it. They would be broken up when the bait was scarce. Fishermen, however, would use spider crabs and not edible crabs. Crabs go out to the deep sea from August to February, and make a close time for themselves. The great point is the capture of small crabs.
In 1874 witness agreed to buy lobsters of 11 inches at 1s. each, under 11 inches at 6d. each. There was no other restriction as to east of Falmouth. This embraces 17 or 18 miles of coast. There are crabs in every cove from Mevagissey to the Land’s End; in fact all along the coast size. Had only 150 lobsters from seven boats in six months. Thinks the ground is over-fished because his neighbours found some new ground out at sea.three or four miles to the eastward, and caught from 100 to 150 lobsters a week per boat. Cannot say whether lobsters migrate. About half the lobsters were above, and half under 11 inches in length. Has seen lobsters 18 inches long and others only 4 or 5 inches long. These small ones also fetch 6d each. The heaviest he ever saw was 11 lbs. in weight. Has no suggestion to make as to legislation for lobsters.
Robert Pomeroy (examined by Mr. Walpole). Is a fisherman. Liver at Gorran Haven. Has been fishing for 10 years. Goes crab and lobster fishing. There are 24 boats fishing from Gorran. Sells crabs in the neighbourhood and to smacks from Southampton and other places. Sells crabs above 8 inches long at 1s. 3d. each; below 8 inches and not less than 5 ½ inches, for half price. Crabs below 5 ½ inches are sent away as “shes” reckoned at two for one, or three for two. The Gorran boats go as far as Deadman Point, and from the shore to three miles out. The boats go out about three miles a day. The highest number of pots carried by a boat is 84; the numbers vary from that number down to 60. They sometimes take small crabs. Seven or eight large crabs is the average take per day. From May to June the she crabs come in and the men get small crabs. They never see she crabs much before May, the small crabs come in with them. Has seen a few she crabs with berries one or two a season. They are always thrown overboard. Thinks the crab spawn out at sea and migrate with the young ones afterwards. Thinks they spawn in deep water in the early part of the year. Crabs are found on rocks and sand. Rocks are best for lobsters and sand is best for crabs. Would like to see an Act of Parliament making it compulsory to throw small crabs back into the water. Thinks females’ under 5 inches should be thrown overboard, and all males under 5 ½ inches. There would be no difficulty in having two gauges, one for males and one for females’. There are a great many females’ above 5 inches and under 5 ½ inches. The outside size for the crabs is 8 or 9 inches. An “outside” male crab would be 12 or 13 inches.
Thinks it is not necessary to have a law about females’ carrying berries, but considers that the trawlers bring in berried hens do a great injury to the crab fisheries, and this should be prevented. But the trawlers could cut away the berries, and the crab could be afterwards sold. Never saw a crab with the berries cut out or removed, and could not say whether it could be detected. Nature makes a close season and no legal close time necessary. The only regulation necessary is the prohibition of the capture of small crabs. Crabs are not decreasing in numbers. Thinks there are more crabs caught than ever. But fishermen go further out to sea for them. There are great many more fishermen than there were. Some seasons crabs are more plentiful than they are at others. Crabs are dearer than they were, but this is due rather to an increased demand than to diminished supply. They are sent to all the large towns in England. Thinks if small crabs were thrown away there would be an increase of big ones. There is no want of food, and the supply might be increased. There is plenty of food for double the number of crabs.
Thinks crabs migrate from place to place. Cannot tell the age of crabs nor the rate of growth. A crab 4 inches would cast his shell three times before he reached 8 inches. Has marked a soft crab with his initials in July or August and in the following spring has caught a hard crab with the same initials. It was about 8 ½ inches across when marked. Does not know whether the crab grew much after it was marked, but thinks not.
There are 24 boats at Gorran Haven, five or six at Mevagissey, and 26 at Port Looe. The
Lobster season begins on January 1st and ends at the end of September. Lobsters are fishe for in deep water till August, and inshore after then. The boats come inshore in August to get out of the way of drift nets, or they would keep in deep water. The average take per boat per day is one or two lobster. A lobster of 11 inches sells for 1s. 3d. under that size for half price. About half the catch is 11 inches long. Berried hens are very scarce; they are found chiefly in the spring. Thinks lobsters spawn off-shore, in deep water. Lobsters are not increasing in number; indeed they are not so plentiful as they were. Perhaps they are over-fished in the deep water where most of the berried hens are caught. The only way to make them more plentiful is to prohibit their capture in deep water, but this would be beyond territorial limits and could not be enforced. There are so few berried hens caught that it not worth while putting them back. No berried hens are under 10 ½ inches and that is very rare; they are usually above 11 inches. Very few undersize lobsters are taken. Call small lobsters those under 6 inches. Lobsters do not breed when they are small. Does not think it would do to have a gauge for lobsters. Crab and lobster pots are identical and crabs and lobsters are taken in the same pot. The same bait does for both Fresh fish is the best bait, and neither crabs nor lobsters will go in unless there is some smell in the fish.
The fishermen break up crabs for wrasse, &c., but not for crabs. Thinks the fishermen would not generally break up small crabs. The spider crabs are generally used for this purpose, and are as good a bait as the common crabs.
JAMES BILLING, of Gorran Haven (examined by Mr Buckland) Has been crab fishing for 40 years. The crabs are not less numerous then they were 40 years ago. They very in certain seasons. There are now more fishermen in search of them, and so they may not catch so many per boat. 40 years ago there were five or six boats; there are now 24 boats, and yet there are as many crabs as ever. The sizes are the same now as formerly. There are as many crabs as there used to be Does not think a close season for crabs necessary, as there is a natural close season. Thinks little crabs should be put back into the water. Would keep all crabs 5 ½ inches across, and throw overboard those of 5 inches and under. Agrees with Mr. Pomeroy as to a gauge of 5 inches for females and 5 ½ inches for males. Never sees any “seeding crabs” (berried hens) except in spring, and then only a very few. He throws overboard “seeding crabs.” This is generally done.
(By Mr. Walpole) Thinks there is no decrease in the number of crabs, but wants legislation because the crabs could grow into big ones. There are now 24 boats where there used formally to be only six, and the 24 boats catch more than the six. More little crabs, as well as big ones, are taken. There are more crabs caught now than there were 40 years ago. Does not think there were more big crabs in the sea 40 years ago then there are now. The fishermen catch as many lobsters now as they did 40 years ago. As they get more money per lobster, each boat earns more money. There is no decrease in the number of lobsters; in fact, though there are 24 boats instead of six, his boat catches more lobsters than it did 40 years ago He used to go out about the 14th January. Now he goes out on Christmas. Does not think it necessary to have any legislation for lobsters.. Agrees with Mr Pomeroy’s evidence as to the price of lobsters. 40 years ago lobsters were sold at 7s. a dozen above 11 inches in length. Below that size two lobsters counted as one.
THOMAS LEY. Is 73 years of age. Lives at Mevagissey. Has been crabbing for 12 or 14 years. This was 50 years ago; but recollects crab fishing for 63 years past. In the interim has been seining. There are not so many large crabs as there used to be, but there are are small crabs. When he was a boy he caught 20, 30, or 40 large crabs, measuring 8 inches across a day. This was with 40 pots; now with 40 pots he would not catch more than three or four. Thinks large crabs have gone scarcer because there are so many boats after them. 55 years ago there were five boats, now there is not one from Mevagissey, but th Gorran men fish there. Does not himself go crabbing now, and cannot tell what Gorran men catch. When he said they caught three or four crabs a day, it was from hearsay. The crabs brought to market now are not so large as they used to be. The crabs come to the ground from deep water. The fishermen cannot fish out of the ground. There is very little trawling off Mevagissey because the ground is rough-rocky and stony. Rough ground is favourable for breeding crabs. Would prohibit the capture of all crabs under 5 inches.
(By Mr. Walpole.) His evidence relates to 50 years ago. His evidence as to crabs now is only hearsay evidence. There was no law about crabs when he was a lad. Crabs when he was a boy were 8s. a long dozen of 26. This was 50 years ago. Has seen lobsters all sizes. They are just the same in size and number as they used to be. Has no other recommendation to make.
JAMES PAWLYN (examined by Mr. Walpole.) Is a fish merchant at Mevagissey. Has been 10 or 12 years in business. Deals with crabs and lobsters with the Gorran men, and along the coast. There are six boats at Fowey, one at Polkerris, one at Par, three at Charlestown, two at Porthpean; two principal crabbers and three others at Mevagissey. 24 at Gorran at Port Looe one at Port Holland, about five or six at Portscatho. Ten years ago the highest price for crabs of 8 inches and over was 9d. Under 8 inches two counted as one. Those under 6 inches went for “shes” and the price was 1 1/2d. each. Lobsters under 11 inches sold for 9d. below that size two went for one. Now the highest price for crabs of 8 inches is 1s 3d. Under 8 inches two count as one. Under 6 inches they go for “shes,” and sell at 2 1/2d. each. The Gorran crabs fetch the highest price. The ground there is more rocky and better than elsewhere in the neighbourhood. The best fish are caught from January to May. The price has increased about one half. He gets fewer big crabs than he did 10 years ago and fewer lobsters. The size of the lobsters remain about the same. Has the whole take of some men whose take he had 10 years ago. These men do not fish less, but fish harder than they did. They have more craft and positively take fewer fish. The seasons vary, but the produce is falling off. Attributes the falling off to the small crabs being taken. The small crabs are as numerous as ever; but the price of small crabs has risen through increased demand and the deficient supply of large crabs. People now buy small crabs where they used to buy a big one. Sends his crabs and lobsters everywhere, to Birmingham, Bristol, Gloucester, &c. Proposes to prohibit the capture of all crabs under 6 ½ inches, and of all “shes” under 5 ½ inches. She crabs are good when smaller than he crabs. He crabs grow larger. Has not seen many seeding crabs in all his experience. They spawn far out to sea. Prefers his gauge to that of the Gorran men. Has no recommendation to make as to crabs.
The supply of lobsters is falling off as much as that of crabs, especially at Fowey. Eight or ten years ago he used to get double the number he gets now. All the take comes to him.
The remedy is not to take berried hens, but they are the best fish, and very numerous in the early part of the year. There is a demand for them in the London market, and they fetch higher price. If the capture of berried hens were prohibited there would not be enough lobsters to supply the demand. Does not think if the capture of berried hens were prohibited, that the fishermen would remove the berries. They might remove them when they are very ripe. Would not personally consent, for the sake of future benefit, to sacrifice the present advantage of selling berried hens. Would prohibit the capture of all hens under 8 inches long. About 1 in 6 or 1 in 10 are under 8 inches. Thinks this would help to arrest decrease, but would not be sufficient. Is not, however, prepared to recommend the prohibition of the capture of berried hens, which would entail a serious loss on fishermen and salesmen. Undersize fish pay the fishermen better than the salesman, as they do not pay for the cost of carriage.
(Examined by Mr Buckland.) Never saw many seeding crabs. Thinks crabs spawn far out to sea. Crabs and lobsters are sent away live. He does not plug the crabs, but cuts them, so that they may not bite one another. The crabs that are boiled are boiled alive. Lobsters go up by ordinary train. Few are boiled here. They reach London in 24 hours.
PETER BILLING, nephew to James Billing. Has heard Mr. Pawlyn’s evidence. Thinks Mr. Pawlyn is wrong in thinking that crabs are decreasing. Mr. Pawlyn gets as many fish from the fishermen as he used to do 10 years ago, if not more. He himself catches as many crabs as he used to do, and he has fished for nearly 20 years. There are as many lobsters, but there is more boats to divide them between. Each boat takes less, but the fish are on the whole as plentiful as ever. Thinks that no legislation is necessary, but agrees with Mr. Pomeroy’s and Mr. James Billing’s evidence as to a 5 inch gauge for females, and 5 ½ inch gauge for males; but he would himself recommend no law, as crabs are not decreasing.
Fishes in the same as he used to do, and does not fish more inshore Can catch small crabs in and out. Small crabs are very numerous now.
Mr. Pawlyn’s proposed gauge for lobsters would take all the lobsters from Norway and Shetland, and stop all the trade with those countries. Cannot get himself enough large lobsters to get a living, and is obliged to catch small ones. A few lobsters may come within shore to spawn. If the capture of berried hens were stopped the fishermen would not get a living by lobster fishing. The little crabs get out of the pots. He throws overboard all small crabs under 5 inches across. As the fishermen do throw overboard all small crabs now, a law to compel them to do so would make no practical difference.
Norway lobsters are under 8 inches, or about that size. They are a very small lobster. Thinks big crabs are as plentiful as ever.
DAVID PATON. Lives at Gorran Haven, and has been fishing for 12 years. Thinks he has taken as many crabs this year as ever, and there are more now than any other year. The end of the season has been the best for 12 years. Sells his crabs to Mr. Pawlyn. There is no decrease in the number. He sold more in previous years, but has sold them to other people this year. Mr. Pawlyn took his fish up to the end of June or July, and after that they were sold to other people. Hence Mr. Pawlyn knew nothing about it. Agrees with Mr. Pomeroy and Mr Billing that all “shes” under 5 inches, and all “hes” under 5 ½ inches should be thrown away. Thinks this would make crabs more plentiful. These small crabs are sold now as two for one. Lobsters are just as plentiful as ever. Would like to turn away all lobsters under 6 inches long. These small lobsters are sold now, but not often taken. There are so few lobsters under 6 inches caught that it would not be worth while to make a law to affect them.
(By Mr. Buckland.) Small she crabs breed. Throwing back the small crabs would increase the breeding stock. When he sees crabs with seed they are generally small ones. Large he crabs are 13 inches. Large females are 9 inches. Living is bad now, and must not be made worse.
RICHARD CLIMO. Lives at Gorran Haven. Thinks lobster season vary. There are more boats now than there used to be, and they catch more fish altogether but less per boat. Used to go lobstering 40 or 50 years ago at Polruan. There was then only one boat, to work five or six miles of ground, now there are 10 to 12 boats on the same ground. In the old times there were good and bad years, but there are good years and bad years now. The finer the weather the better the lobsters.
Was in Norway during the Russian war 20 years ago. The people brought lobsters on board for sale. They were small, 9 inch and under. Never saw a lobster of 11 inches in Norway. Thinks the Norway lobsters are generally a smaller kind than ours. They are bright blue lobsters. Has seen lobsters the length of his finger; they have been thrown away as to small. The small lobsters generally go through the pots. The small ones are generally caught in bait pots, the ribs of which are much closer together. All lobsters caught in a lobster pot are marketable.
There used to be cray fish at Fowey, and they were very plentiful. They are scarce now. Thinks they go in shoals.
JOHN HUNKIN. Lives at Mevagissey. Is 73 years old. Is a fisherman. There were three boats at Mevagissey then. Used to go to the ground where the Gorran men now go, but never fished in deep water or above a mile from shore. Crabs were very plentiful. Used to fish with 100 pots and sometimes had 50, 20, 12, or 10 large crabs a day. These were crabs upwards of 8 inches across. Used to throw away all she crabs. There was no sale for the she crabs. Does not know whether it would be possible to catch as many crabs now; but thinks they are decreasing. Large crabs are scarcer. There are more than double the number of boats. Crabs used to be 8s a dozen of 26, and the price fell in May to 6s per dozen. The railway has opened up a larger market, and the increased price recently may be due to it. A large crab which sold when he was a boy for 6d. or 4d. would be worth 2s 6d. Agrees with with proposal to throw back small crabs. Has caught berried lobsters in May and June, ready to spawn. Has also caught she crabs.
THOMAS POLLARD. Has been in the crab and lobster trade three years. This is the best year he ever knew. Does not know whether this is due to the hot weather. It may be so. Warm rainy weather with westerly winds are good for crab catching. Agrees with the recommendation already given, throw back she crabs under 5 inches, and “hes” under 5 ½ inches, and has no other suggestion to make.
JOSEPH CLIMO, of Polruan. The Gorran men are unanimously of opinion that there should be a law to prevent the capture of she crabs under 5 inches, and of he crabs under 5 ½ inches. There need be no law for lobsters.