Outer Hebrides creel limitation pilot: research and evaluation

Presents the findings of the survey made into the operational implications and socio-economic impacts of the Outer Hebrides Creel Limitation Pilot on fishers.


The CLP was introduced in November 2020 and concluded in October 2022. Before concluding, researchers investigated the impacts that the CLP has had on fishers to assess whether the pilot had been successful in meeting its aims to reduce effort, reverse declining shellfish stocks, modernise the inshore fleet and examine local-scale fisheries management through the OHRIFG. Using a combination of interviews and an online survey, the socio-economic and operational changes to inshore fishers affected by the Outer Hebrides Creel Limitation Pilot (CLP) have been researched and evaluated using qualitative methodologies. Specifically, researchers investigated the impact of creel limitation on personal fishing activities, gear conflict, well-being, health and safety, income and expenditure. The opportunity for fishers to provide feedback on the implementation process was also given to enable policymakers to improve their methodology should the pilot be extended or trialled elsewhere. The results section above detailed the report findings; in this section, the results and their significance are discussed in more detail.

Feedback on implementation

From the investigations on the implementation process, it appears that the vast majority of respondents were interested in the CLP, including participants, non-participants and processors. The primary reason given was to reduce the fishing effort to see improved fishing efficiency and also to encourage responsible and sustainable management of the fishery. Several interviewees pointed out that inshore fishers in the Outer Hebrides have been wanting to see such a scheme for many years and so have been keen to make the most of the proposals. However, it is possible that this could be an artefact of interested participants being the ones that agreed to answer a survey or interview.

The consultation process appears to have been done effectively with over half of the respondents attending consultation events and three-quarters of those said that they felt their opinions and concerns were listened to. Credit for this goes, in part, to Duncan MacInnes, the secretariat and acting chair of the OHRIFG and the secretary of WIFA. Several fishers spoke highly of his involvement in organising meetings and keeping them informed:

"Duncan is on it. I can't find fault with what he does. He works hard to keep us informed and makes sure people have the chance to be involved. I think that it was done well."
– Interviewee 16

Having an informed and interested liaison is clearly a valuable component of the consultation process. A respondent also informed researchers of an excursion taken to see another creel limit scheme in place in Northumberland, which helped alleviate concerns in advance of the CLP.

Feedback on Operational Patterns

Less than a quarter of respondents had made any changes to their operational patterns and those that did were most likely to reduce their creel numbers. If the majority of CLP participants did not change their operating patterns, this suggests that the limits given were generally higher than the average fisher would use for their size of vessel. There are both benefits and drawbacks to this stance on creel limits. The high limits have allowed many to maintain their tried and tested operational patterns with minimal fuss; the upside being that the imposed creel limits would be met with minimal resistance by the small-scale fleet. The limits would disproportionately affect vivier crabbing vessels that fish above the creel limit, forcing them out of the pilot area.

However, these limits are unlikely to have made any significant impact on the number of creels placed on the grounds by small-scale fishers and consequently to their fishing effort, gear conflict or shellfish stocks, particularly in areas where vivier boats were not fishing. The other worry was that fishers would see the limit as a target and purchase more creels to get up to the maximum that they were allowed. Though this was suspected by some, no evidence of this was found as none of the respondents had increased their own creel numbers to meet the limit.

The largest change to operational patterns was that of reducing creel numbers. The hypothesised drivers for this change were location, target species and vessel size, all of which may have some bearing on the change. No respondents from Barra and Vatersay reduced their creel numbers. It is unclear whether this is true to life or due to the smaller sample of fishers emerging from the southern islands. All fishers that reduced their creel numbers target Nephrops amongst other species. As the pilot area is predominantly Nephrops grounds, the reductions could be either because fishers are actively fishing within the pilot area and have therefore reduced creel numbers out of necessity, or because they have mixed fisheries. Some fishers have had to take in some creels of one kind to allow for the shooting of creels of a different kind.

"We work Nephrops and then lobsters in the summer. With the limits as they are, we have to decide whether it's more economical to leave the Nephrops gear out or take 100 in to put out the lobster creels. I would prefer an extra 100 creels for Nephrops to eliminate the problem." – Interviewee 21

There are several different types of creel a fisher can choose from, depending on the target species. Generally, Nephrops are caught using industry-standard D-shaped Nephrops creels, whereas crab and lobster are caught using industry-standard D-shaped lobster/ crab creels or parlour creels. Nephrops fishersdeploy over twice as many creels on average compared with crab and lobster fishers. The average Nephrops vessel has a deployed capacity of 926 creels and the average crab/ lobster vessel has a deployed capacity of 455 creels on the east coast and 294 creels on the west coast (Marine Scotland, 2017b). This adds additional complexity to the settlement of the limits, should they be re-adjusted. With vessel size, it appears to be mostly mid-sized vessels between 8 and 12m that have reduced their creel numbers. Smaller vessels are physically restricted to the number of creels they can fit onboard and therefore appear less likely to be using the limit. Very few larger vessels (12m +) responded to the survey or interviews, so the sample size is inconclusive.

Many respondents were dissatisfied with the creel limits for the pilot. Over half of those asked felt that the limit was set too high. If the pilot is to be extended, this suggests that the limits need revisiting. The vast majority (87% and 73% of survey and interview respondents respectively) said that they would be accepting of a lower creel limit, particularly if scientific evidence can demonstrate fishing to be more sustainable. Whilst it is unclear how the limits were originally decided, setting the creel limits presents a difficult task with many factors to consider, such as vessel length, target species, creel type and the number of crew.

A small cohort agrees that the limit should be set at 1,000 creels regardless of vessel size. All fishers that held this view were from Harris, Lewis and Scalpay and fished in vessels ranging from <8m up to 12m. Some fishers felt that smaller vessels were disadvantaged. Not only do they have a lower creel limit, but they are also unable to fish in rougher seas under poorer weather conditions, feeling that larger vessels are given an unfair advantage:

"There are 1000 creels between the smallest and largest limits. The little boats can only go out for 2 or 3 days a week [because of the weather] so they are hauling less than 2,500 creels per week. Someone with a larger vessel can go out every day with 1,800 creels. They can haul nearly 13,000 creels per week. It doesn't sound like a conservation measure to me." – Interviewee 25

The idea of limiting all vessels to 1,000 creels is believed to even out the disparity. A fisher argued that management would also be simplified. Though this idea has some support in the north, the idea may not be entirely equitable and more difficult to accommodate with additional crew or different target species. A fixed creel limit for vessels of all sizes may inhibit a fisher's ability to diversify their fishery in the event of depleting stocks. Some of this may be navigable with different hauling regimes, e.g. double hauling, though this undermines the goal of reducing effort as it did with fishers in the South Australian rock lobster fishery, employing 'input substitution' in Staniford's (1987) study. Ultimately fishing effort, however defined, must be linked to the sustainability of the stock.

If catch and landings per unit effort can be recorded with sufficient sensitivity and resolution to detect potentially detrimental levels of fishing effort, then appropriate reductions in effort can be introduced dynamically in response. Alternatively, up-to-date stock assessments can be used to set limits on how much of a particular species is landed and this is controlled through quota allocation. At present, limiting the number of creels represents a pragmatic response to rapidly increasing numbers of creels being deployed. In the absence of other enforceable criteria such as the number of creels deployed and in the water at any one time, there is room to increase effort. Similarly, without limits on soak time, effort can potentially increase. The ability to track vessels and estimate creel numbers and soak time could open up the potential to manage effort based on "creel days" rather than an absolute number of creels per vessel but this would still need to balance effort distribution between the fleet and most importantly the biological sustainability of the stock.

Feedback on Social Implications

Gear Conflict

Gear conflict presents a complex picture in the Outer Hebrides. It was hypothesised that location may influence which fishers had observed changing conflict as well as the number of years fishing. It was thought that fishers that had been fishing for longer in an area may be more attuned to the subtleties of conflict change. However, whether it was the small sample sizes or lack of connection, no link was found to suggest where conflict changes might be felt most strongly. Survey respondents participating in the CLP, generally, reported that either they did not have any conflict or there were no changes in levels of conflict inside the pilot area. The exception to this was in the circumstance of having creels placed on the grounds which would prevent them from fishing in a particular area. Here, the majority of CLP participants thought that there were fewer instances of this happening and a smaller percentage thought that instances of creels holding grounds had increased inside the pilot area. There appears to be no clear reasoning as to why ground holding would increase inside the pilot area. This could be explored if more data were available.

For those that noticed a change in gear conflict outside the pilot area, it appears that, from what limited data were available, there may well be an increase in gear holding the grounds. There are no clear patterns to connect the fishers that responded this way; however, this suggests that there may have been a degree of displacement resulting from the CLP, whereby fishers that would usually fish inside the pilot area (including vivier crabbing vessels) had moved creels outside the pilot area into other's fishing grounds. This would explain the reduction of ground holding inside the pilot area and the increase outside the area.

For those that noted more ground holding inside the pilot area, it is possible that the gear limitation attracted new vessels to the area which could explain why more creels have appeared within the restricted area.

"I have seen 3 new vessels on my grounds inside the pilot area since the creel limit started. I have reduced my creel numbers according to the limit, but there are about 2,000 more creels on my grounds from the new vessels." – Interviewee 21

The number of derogations to fish within the pilot area appears to have been uncapped. New entrants were encouraged to contact their local fisheries offices on the Marine Scotland flyer to get application forms for the derogations (Marine Scotland, 2020b). Fishing effort and consequently gear conflict and shellfish stocks will likely not improve if the effort in terms of the number of vessels is not also controlled.

Conflict between static and mobile gear fishers was also mixed. An interviewee recalled their story of losing creels to scallop dredges:

"We used to have conflict with scallop dredges. I remember one time when we were fishing crabs, we lost about £12,000 worth of gear because it was towed by a scalloper." – Interviewee 20

On the whole, it appears that conflict with mobile gear fishers has not increased inside the pilot area with many saying they did not have any conflict or that it had not changed. One creel fisher said that they had noticed more conflict outside the pilot area. Like the above, this could be because of creels that have been displaced outside the pilot area and are now obstructing different mobile gear grounds. The one mobile gear fisher that responded to the survey thought that conflict was the same inside the pilot area, but better outside the pilot area. It is unclear why this would be the case. It is possible that fishers with derogations outwith the pilot area also reduced their creel numbers in some places or have moved their operations to within the pilot area.

None of the comments made by interviewees suggests that changes in static-mobile gear conflict were to do with the CLP. Instead, it appears that there may well be fewer trawlers operating either because it was no longer economic or because of retirements. Relationships between static and mobile gear fishers may, however, have been improved because of the CLP. Two static gear fishers felt that the gear limitations had reduced the amount of static gear (and therefore opportunity for entanglements) on the grounds. Several fishers reported no problems with mobile gear fishers and two respondents had reported better communication with mobile gear fishers in their areas, coinciding with, but not caused by the CLP. If static gear effort is further reduced and mobile gear vessels do not increase their effort in response, further benefits to remaining areas of unchanged conflict and static-mobile gear relations might be realised. Endeavours to further improve communications could also prove invaluable in minimising the loss of static gear and the risk of entanglement.

Though many vivier vessels are no longer working the grounds intensively within the pilot area, many fishers still harbour negative sentiments towards their operations. Vivier crabbers are generally larger vessels reported to use several thousands of creels, with the ability to retain large numbers of live crab onboard. As such, they can fish in rougher weather and stay at sea for several days at a time, unlike the vast majority of the local inshore static gear fleet. Concern over vivier crabbers was not limited to a specific area but was widespread across the Outer Hebrides. When the pilot began, vivier vessels still wanting to operate large numbers of creels would have been displaced to the west. These vessels remain problematic because of conflict over crab stocks as much as space on the grounds. This may, however, help promote the recovery of crab stocks in the east, though no reports of this were noted as of yet.

It appears many of these vivier vessels are not locally registered Scottish vessels; their unsustainable approach to fishing may affect the small island communities for which creel fishing is a form of subsistence. This is, in part, why many fishers would like to see the CLP extended to the west coast of the Outer Hebrides. With the creel limits set relatively high for the average small-scale vessel, and the likelihood of foreign vessel owners not being present at OHRIFG consultation meetings, it is suggestive that removing vivier crabbers from fishing grounds was perhaps the desired outcome. No vivier crabbers responded to this study which represents a limitation on the socio-economic investigations.

The question remains as to what happens with vivier vessels now that the CLP has come to an end. A fisher spoke of "living in fear" of the large vessels coming back onto their grounds or beginning to target lobster as crab stocks decline. Whilst management at a local scale is appropriate for localised issues such as that of gear conflict in the inshore fishery, it is not well equipped to deal with larger-sale conflicts brought by overseas vessels. Creating a dialogue with vivier vessel owners is necessary to ensure fair outcomes for all, particularly if the CLP is to be geographically extended.


As with other areas of investigation, it appears that responses to questioning on personal well-being were mixed. The vast majority of fishers did not notice any changes to any of the aspects of well-being, however, a subset felt that their well-being had changed for the better across all the categories that they were questioned on. There did not appear to be any obvious relationships between positive changes in well-being and locations, years of fishing or target species. This suggests that the positive benefits were relatively widespread across the fishing community. This may have been different if a comparison of those fishing inside and outside the pilot area was made.

A small minority of respondents felt that their well-being had become worse throughout the pilot in terms of profitability, business sustainability, health and safety, and quality of life. Survey respondents were unable to give their reasoning for this and no interviewees said that their well-being had been negatively affected; the reasoning can only be speculated. An interviewee suggested that it might be because of the inability to diversify their fisheries that could lead to additional stress, however, the downturn in well-being could also be because of the current economic climate, rather than a direct result of the CLP.

Health and Safety

The impacts of the CLP on health and safety are seemingly negligible or improved with all fishers noting either no change in their levels of satisfaction or improved satisfaction at the time of interview. It was also widely recognised that reducing creel numbers would likely benefit health and safety, reducing physical wear and tear, and levels of fatigue. Fishing is a notoriously dangerous industry; an interviewee shared about the incident in 2016 where a vivier crabbing vessel, the Louisa, foundered off the coast of the Ilse of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides with the loss of three crew. Whilst many failings were found to have added to the disaster, fatigue to the point of compromising the safety of the crew was found to be a contributing factor (MAIB, 2017). Because of the work ethic aboard the vessel, machinery was not shut down properly when the crew retired for the evening, fashioning the conditions leading to the incident. Reducing the workload of fishers by reducing creel limits and therefore, fatigue, may well save lives in the long term, so long as fishers do not increase their effort through double hauling or the owning of multiple vessels. If a creel limitation can generate the same returns for reduced effort, this can be considered a triumph for health and safety, reducing the risks to fishers that come with fatigue-induced negligence.

Feedback on Economic Implications

Income and Expenditure

The majority of fishers did not notice any changes to their income or expenditure as a result of the CLP. This should in part, be viewed as a positive outcome; the concern that reduced creel numbers may lead to reduced catches in this context has not been realised. This may be because the limits were set so high and only on the east so that for many, business was as usual. However, when this is overlayed with the current economic backdrop of rising operational costs to fuel and gear, this is at the least, not bad. Some improvements were also noted by several fishers, including directly reduced overheads such as fuel and bait because of using fewer creels. The market prices for Nephrops were also reported to be better because fishers were catching better quality animals of larger size with less bruising. A small minority reported worsening economic situations. The only reason given is that one fisher noticed more vessels on their grounds within the pilot area, which they believed to be a result of the CLP, creating more competition over the stock in that area. As referenced earlier, if effort is only capped through creel numbers and not through vessel numbers, the effort may not be reduced in certain areas, undermining the possible benefits.

Shellfish Stocks

Though respondents were asked specifically to feedback on the economic impacts of the CLP only, some felt that the current economic climate post-Brexit, COVID-19 and the conflict in Ukraine may have overshadowed any positive economic benefits to the CLP. Realistically, this is incredibly difficult to separate and would need a thorough economic and stock assessment to confirm. For example, though several felt that Nephrops stocks were improved since the beginning of the creel limitation, it is not impossible that the driver for healthier stocks was not the reduced fishing pressure from the creel limits, but from vessels being kept ashore due to supply chain issues in the COVID-19 pandemic or because of unusually bad weather. Natural variation in stock may also be part of the reason.

The latest stock assessments for Nephrops done by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) suggest in the west of Scotland, north and south Minch, that fishing mortality is currently below Maximum Sustainable Yield (FMSY) (ICES, 2022a, 2022b). This agrees with the reports from the fishers that stocks seem relatively healthy at the point of survey. The latest crab and lobster stock assessments, however, were last done seven years ago in 2015. Stocks of brown crab, velvet crab and European lobster in the Outer Hebrides were all deemed to have 'some concerns' with fishing mortality being above FMSY for either males or females. Population trends were thought to be stable for lobster and velvet crab and increasing for brown crab (Marine Scotland, 2020a). This doesn't fit with the narrative given by fishers in the Outer Hebrides with several reporting declining crab stocks and expressing a good deal of concern over the longevity of the crab and lobster fishery, particularly with the threat of vivier vessels on their grounds. Thorough stock assessments are needed to ensure the fishery is being regulated appropriately and if necessary, interventions put in place. This could include setting a Total Allowable Catch (TACs) for brown crab in the Outer Hebrides.


This study was unsuccessful at determining the various drivers of change. There do not appear to be any specific patterns emerging around the number of years fishing, location, vessel length, fishery type or most surprisingly, participation in the CLP. This could be due to small sample sizes. A further reason that pilot participation may not have been a driver may be because of the researcher's unawareness of the fishery dynamics, with the Nephrops fishery being contained entirely within the pilot area. From speaking to fishers, researchers learnt that Nephrops are caught almost exclusively in the east along with some crab. Fishers in the west are targeting only crab and lobster, yet many crab and lobster fishers had derogations to fish within the pilot area. Many participants in the CLP were not reaping the benefits of the pilot area as Nephrops grounds. This might help to explain why there appear to be conflicting stock trends reported by fishers between crab, lobster and Nephrops. In terms of the investigation, asking respondents whether they fished to the east (inside the pilot area) or the west (outside the pilot area) of the Outer Hebrides, may have been more of a determining factor than pilot participation. Ideally, cross-referencing interviews and survey responses with spatial data would provide a more robust means of investigating the discrepancies in the socio-economic impacts of spatial management, such as the CLP.

Management recommendations

Several prominent recommendations for improvement emerged from the investigation, which are detailed below as a combination of the fisher's suggestions and the researcher's interpretation. Together it is hoped that these recommendations should further improve the socio-economic outcomes for fishers partaking in the creel limitation scheme.

  • Reassess the creel limits. Whilst creel limits are contentious, the majority agree that they need to be further reduced to make any substantial difference to the fisheries in terms of conflict and fishing effort. Incorporated into the discussions should be whether species-specific creel limits are needed to ensure the different stocks with different recruitment are not homogenised. With reduced creel numbers, some fishers may attempt to find loopholes by double hauling or fishing outside the limitation area, undermining the purpose of these measures.
  • Extend the pilot area. Many fishers would like to see the pilot area extended to the west of the Outer Hebrides so that the benefits can also be felt by fishers targeting crab and lobster, rather than just Nephrops. To accommodate this, the pilot would also need to be temporally extended.
  • Stock assessments for brown crab, velvet swimming crab and European lobster. Stock assessments should be updated, particularly as reports of declining brown crab are contradictory to the latest stock assessments from 2015.
  • Track all vessels. At present, only a proportion of the CLP vessels are tracked and those involved in trawling for Nephrops are not taken into account.
  • Responsive policing by Marine Scotland. Some fishers would like to see some reprimand for those that get caught flaunting the terms of the derogations. Marine Scotland having a more proactive role in policing may help to create better relationships with fishers in the long term and should help towards the common goal of reducing effort and mitigating conflict.
  • A cap on the overall effort. Limiting the effort in an area should not be a deterrent to new entrants but is a necessary constraint if overfishing is to be avoided.
  • Continued local-scale co-management. The framework for co-management by the OHRIFG alongside Marine Scotland has shown promise in agreeing on the pilot and seeing it through to completion. The localised co-management can now be streamlined to determine the next steps of this project going forward. Issues beyond a localised approach, such as the conflict caused by foreign vivier crab vessels, may require some intervention to ensure fair outcomes for all if the pilot is to be extended both temporally and geographically.
  • The long-term monitoring of creel limitation needs to be embedded in data collection with respect to both tracking, to provide appropriate and timely effort metrics, and linked to a more robust collection of both catch and landings data that can be attributed more directly to effort.


Email: inshore@gov.scot

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