Sark gives full protection to crawfish

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 20 June 2018

The Channel Island of Sark has become the first place in the British Isles to fully protect the crawfish. The amendment in the Island’s fishing laws will last for at least three years.

© Sue Daly

We’re a small place so we can get some things done quickly but it would be great to see the other channel islands and the UK protecting this species before it’s too late.

Sue Daly,
Underwater film-maker

Related to the lobster, the crawfish, (Palinurus elephas) also known as the European spiny lobster, is recognisable because it has no claws but instead, spikey multi-purpose front legs. It can grow to 50cm in length and weigh several kilograms.

The Island’s Sea Fisheries Authority consulted with local fisherman after a survey was carried out by Sark-based underwater film-maker, Sue Daly, last summer.

Crawfish were fished almost to extinction in the 1960’s and 70’s. Sue, who’s been diving the waters around the Channel Islands since the late 1980s said she rarely saw crawfish: “I’d hardly seen any crawfish, maybe one or two adults a year and some years none at all - yet they used to be plentiful.”

Then, about four year ago, Sue saw a change: “In 2014 I began seeing juvenile crawfish on the reefs around Sark, since then I’ve seen more and larger ones, but was concerned that, without protection, these wonderful creatures would simply be fished out again.”

At the same time, crawfish in increasing numbers were reported to MCS around the other Channel Islands and the south-west coast of England.

The Island’s Sea Fisheries Committee had discussions with local fishers and proposed to protect the animals within the island’s three-mile territorial limit. The proposal was supported by the island’s government in January and the amendment to Sark’s fishing law has now been enacted.

Sue Daly is delighted by the move: “It’s wonderful to dive around Sark this summer and see crawfish knowing that they are safe. We’re a small place so we can get some things done quickly but it would be great to see the other channel islands and the UK protecting this species before it’s too late. So often conservation lags behind extraction when it comes to marine life.”

Chairman of the Island’s parliament, Chief Pleas, Agriculture, Environment, Sea Fisheries & Pilotage committee, Helen Palmer says: ‘We’re hoping that crawfish stocks will continue to increase and perhaps in time we’ll be able to allow a limited amount of fishing for them. For now though they are protected for the next three years.

MCS Marine Protected Area Specialist, Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, says: “It’s fantastic and exciting that the marine environment can recover in ways we can’t imagine, or really understand. This is why MPAs and marine management is so very important - if we were to close areas to some activities, the results may not be apparent today, but may be in years, and even decades to come. Well done to Sark, and her fishermen.”

Dr Solandt suggests that the reason crawfish populations around Sark have made a comeback could just be down to fluctuations in nature when conditions for reproduction and survival hit the jackpot: “Historically we fished out the crawfish species in the 70s and 80s when diving and pot fishing became something for everyone. But some populations (perhaps in deep, deep waters, on wrecks, way offshore) ‘hung on’. It’s likely that, maybe five years or so ago, there was the right environmental conditions for the spawn of the left-over animals that settled in large numbers, in a single year, on the reefs of southern England and the channel. This ‘pulse’ of successful settlement of the larvae from the plankton also coincided with great conditions for lots of larvae to grow. Maybe a lack of predators in that year, perfect sea temperatures , planktonic food for the drifting larvae created the perfect storm.”

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