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.


This research and evaluation project 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 operational Implications include any changes made to a fisher's regular fishing activity, including:

  • Fishing location
  • Distance travelled
  • Number of creels deployed
  • Soak times
  • Trip times
  • Number of fishing days per week

The socio-economic impacts on fishers were evaluated and included perceptions of changes to:

  • Gear conflict
  • Personal Well-being
  • Health and Safety
  • Income and Expenditure
  • Shellfish Stocks and landings

The Outer Hebrides Creel Limitation Pilot (CLP) was implemented by Marine Scotland between the 5th of November 2020 and the 31st of October 2022. Feedback from fishers impacted by the CLP was also sought to better understand the consultation process and how it could be adapted in the future. From the outset, this research was undertaken in a qualitative capacity due to the difficulties in quantifying any socio-economic changes with the backdrop of the EU exit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis.

Background to the CLP

In December 2020, the Scottish Government published the Fisheries Management Strategy for 2020 – 2030. The strategy recognises the important relationships already established between Marine Scotland, fishers and the wider community. A major theme of the strategy is to continue to strengthen these relationships through co-management of the fisheries to enable local issues like gear conflict and increasing fishing effort to be tackled using a bottom-up approach by devolving decisions to the Regional Inshore Fisheries Groups (RIFGs). The RIFGs, established in 2016, are non-statutory organisations, seeking the improvement of inshore fisheries management through localised management projects. There are five RIFGs in Scotland; The North and East Coast RIFG, The West Coast RIFG, Orkney Sustainable Fisheries, Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation and the Outer Hebrides RIFG (OHRIFG). (The Scottish Government, 2020).

Of Scotland's 2,082-strong active fishing fleet, 975 (47%) fish predominantly with creels, making it the most populous fishing method in Scotland. The vast majority of creeling vessels are less than 10m in length. Creels, also known as pots or traps, are typically baited to catch a variety of shellfish including European lobster (Homarus gammarus), brown crab (Cancer pagurus), velvet-swimming crab (Necora puber) and Norway lobster (also known as Nephrops or langoustine Nephrops norvegicus). The creel fishing sector caught nearly 14,000 tonnes across all species of shellfish in 2021 with a total value of £57.6 million (Marine Scotland, 2022).

In 2017, Marine Scotland released the latest Creel Fishing Effort report, detailing creel use around Scotland to gauge the quantity of effort and inform any management schemes going forwards. As part of this study, researchers interviewed creel fishers on their primary concerns. The most widespread worry was that of gear saturation, whereby the number of creels being fished was so high that fishers were unable to redeploy their creels elsewhere or rest the grounds (Marine Scotland, 2017b). Discontent was expressed over creels being used to 'hold the grounds', deliberately keeping away competitors that would want access to the ground whilst a fisher is elsewhere. Associated with gear saturation, is the potential for overfishing shellfish stocks. Another primary concern was that of conflict between creel fishers and mobile gear fishers (e.g. trawlers or scallop dredges), exasperated by the number of creels in the water, giving rise to incidents where strings of creels and associated catch are lost (Marine Scotland, 2017b).

To address these issues, two methods of management were discussed in the 2017 fishing effort study. The first was that of spatial management of static gear either through the introduction of seasonal closures or static-only areas. Whilst some support was found, spatial management was largely unpopular amongst interviewees, with concerns over displacement, enforcement and business viability. The second option was to manage fishing effort through the setting of creel limitations. A much larger proportion of creel fishers from the east and west coast of Scotland favoured a creel limitation scheme, though there was some disagreement on how the limits should be decided (Marine Scotland, 2017b). Concluding remarks suggested that, because of the diversity in fishing practices within the static gear sector around Scotland and the highly localised nature of the conflict, regional management is necessary.

Creel limitation schemes are not new and have been trialled elsewhere in the world, in places such as Australia, Alaska and Europe. In 1984, a pot limitation was trialled on the Southern Zone rock lobster fishery in South Australia. Pot limits were reduced by 15%, to a minimum of 25 and a maximum of 80 pots. Analysis of the pot reduction found that it was successful at reducing fishing effort, however, the reduction in effort was not proportional to the reduction of pots due to 'input substitution'. Some fishers chose to offset the effect of the limitation by hauling pots more frequently (Staniford, 1987). In the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, the dramatic increase in fishing effort between 1986 and 1990 saw the number of pots registered to the fishery more than double. This led to economic investigations, via simulation, of two different pot limit regimes to determine if a pot limit could increase season length (Greenberg and Herrmann, 1993). The finding was that fixed pot limits lead to greater disparity between vessels of different sizes than proportional pot limits, where larger vessels lose harvest share and smaller vessels gain. Only marginal extensions were found for season length under either regime.

More recently, the pot and trap octopus fishery of southern Portugal sought to explore co-management through a series of 7 workshops with stakeholder groups, representing fisheries management, research institutions and fishing associations. The project aimed to create an environment where knowledge could be pooled towards a common goal of implementing sustainable management of the octopus fishery. Amongst other management controls, gear limits were proposed and discussed (Sonderblohm et al., 2017). The outcome of stakeholder engagement favoured a seasonal closure as pot limits were already in place with inadequate policing, though the project itself presents a suitable framework for co-management in a small-scale fisheries context with which lessons can be learned. In their case, a detailed management plan with regular assessment of the agreed strategies was recommended. Management plans facilitate the necessary organisation required to enable stakeholder groups to coordinate on agreed management strategies. Possible management actions were identified by fishers and stakeholders collectively using the 'Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats' (SWOT) methodology to provide insight and recommendations on the proposals (Sonderblohm et al., 2017).

In the UK, a pot limitation scheme is currently being trialled in Northumberland. The Northumberland Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authority (NIFCA) have imposed permits and limits of 800 pots on all commercial shellfish vessels under 12m (NIFCA, 2022). All pots for commercial and hobby fishers must be identified using simple plastic tags. A presentation by Michael Hardy of the Northumberland Sea Fisheries Committee (NSFC) at a conference in May 2010 suggested that in its first year, the NSFC had issued permits to 120 fishers and removed more than 100 untagged pots (Hardy, 2010).

In keeping with the theme of co-management, the proposal for a creel limitation scheme was developed by the OHRIFG. The Outer Hebrides represented an appropriate location for which to trial creel limitation. The Outer Hebrides RIFG is cohesive with strong, active leadership, willing to commit to the trial, providing both a suitable model and scale for which a creel limit could be piloted. Equivocal evidence also pointed to rapidly declining crab stocks. Stakeholders suggested in the Consultation on Proposed Sites to Host Inshore Fisheries Pilots 2017, that in the Outer Hebrides, the tendency towards gear saturation and conflict has been steadily increasing over the last couple of decades (Marine Scotland, 2017a). The proposal was met with strong support and consequently, plans to launch a creel limitation pilot scheme were agreed upon between Marine Scotland and the OHRIFG (Marine Scotland, 2017a) with monitoring subcontracted to scientists at the University of St Andrews.

A visit to observe the pot limits in Northumberland was made by several fishers from the Outer Hebrides. Additionally, correspondence between Marine Scotland and officials in Northumberland suggested that their pot tagging scheme had been challenging to enforce and therefore pot tagging was not put forward for this pilot, though the marking of fleets would be mandatory. In June 2019, members of the OHRIFG, along with the Western Isles Fishermen's Association (WIFA), Marine Scotland and several other fishery associations, agreed to the creel limits allocated to each vessel size (Table 1) and discussed the pilot area boundaries, noting that the area was smaller than on the original proposal (OHRIFG, 2019).

Table 1) Upper limits are given for different vessels of different size classes.
Vessel Size Class Maximum Creel Limit Maximum soak time
<8m 800 3 weeks
8-10m 1200 3 weeks
10-12m 1500 3 weeks
>12m 1800 3 weeks

The Outer Hebrides Creel Limitation Pilot

The Outer Hebrides Creel Limitation Pilot (CLP) commenced on the 5th of November 2020 and came to an end on the 31st of October 2022. Its main aims were to:

1. Reverse the declines in shellfish stocks.

2. Reduce fishing effort.

3. Investigate an option to modernise vessel tracking in the inshore fleet (part of the Outer Hebrides Early Adopters Pilot).

4. Examine fisheries management, on a local scale (Bell et al., 2022).

The pilot hoped to tackle gear conflict, prevent 'holding of the grounds', improve health and safety and increase catch return documentation through the development of a purpose-built mobile phone application (App). A designated pilot area was specified (Figure 1), and 143 derogations to fish within the area were issued. Participants were to not exceed the limit on the number of creels according to their vessel length or the agreed soak times (Table 1) and acknowledged that Marine Scotland may wish to fit a tracker to their vessel.

Figure 1) The designated Creel Limitation Pilot area (shown in blue), spanning the east coast of the Outer Hebridean Islands and much of The Minch. Created on QGIS by Dr Anna Mujal-Colilles. Coordinates were taken from Outer Hebrides Inshore Fisheries Pilot - Year 1 Report.
The Outer Hebrides Creel Limitation Pilot area which is to the east of the islands out to the middle of the Minch, from approximately level with Stornoway down to the southernmost tip of the islands.

In May 2022, The Outer Hebrides Inshore Fisheries Pilot Year One Report was released. At the time of reporting, mixed feedback had been given, with improvements seen in the reduction of gear conflict and lessened time spent at sea but expressed concern over infringements of the cap on soak times and the holding of grounds. Despite the concern, fishers have not reported any observations of this to Marine Scotland (Bell et al., 2022). More pressing issues raised in the Year One Report were the potential displacement of vessels both within and outwith the pilot area and the decrease in brown crab landings.

More recently, additional pressures have surfaced for the fishery. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) down-rated Scottish west coast crab and lobster caught in pots, traps and creels as 'Fish to avoid' in their UK guide to sustainable seafood, known as the 'Good Fish Guide' (MCS, 2022b, 2022a; McVeigh, 2022). The reasons given include not having any formal management in place, no recent stock assessments, no quota system and the potential underreported entanglements of marine megafauna connected to creeling activities (MacLennan et al., 2021). Whilst these problems have only recently come to light, they are long-standing issues. It is hoped that the CLP can begin to address them; reducing the amount of gear on the grounds should reduce the risk of entanglements, as well as capping fishing effort to ensure the sustainable management of shellfish stocks.

Evidence provided in the CLP year one report included an assessment of landings before and during the first year of the pilot which was restricted to data from 2017 onwards because records prior to 2017 were considered inadequate for analysis. This represents a relatively short timeframe for detecting and attributing cause to changes in landings. The pilot formally started in November 2020 which was during the period of COVID lockdown restrictions and followed Brexit in January 2020. These circumstances are likely to have caused perturbations in both the supply and demand for shellfish from this fishery and compound the challenges of trying to tease out changes to the fishery that may have been linked to the CLP. In addition, evidence of estimated numbers of creels deployed during the first year of the CLP suggested that many fishers were already fishing at or well below the limits set for their vessels. As a result, Marine Scotland, together with the research team at the University of St Andrews, agreed to use a different methodology involving primary data collection through interviews and a survey in order to better understand the pilot and its impacts.

Aims of the study

The purpose of this study was therefore to research and evaluate whether the CLP has been successful in meeting its aims by way of a targeted online survey and face-to-face interviews with stakeholders. This project sought to gather feedback on the consultation process, determine the operational implications to fishers, and the socio-economic impact on participants and the wider community. More specifically, the goals were to:

1. Gather feedback from stakeholders on the consultation, preparation and implementation processes undertaken to facilitate the CLP.

2. Determine changes to operational patterns as a direct result of the CLP. This includes changes made to fishing locations, the number of creels, soak times, distance travelled, trip duration, fishing days per week, policing and perception of other's operational activities.

3. Assess the socio-economic implications of the CLP through investigations on:

a. Possible economic changes to income and expenditures and willingness to reduce creel numbers.

b. Possible social impacts for:

i. Gear conflict between static gear fishers and also between static and mobile fleets, both inside and outwith the pilot area.

ii. Health and safety implications related to the changes in fishing activity, both positive and negative.

iii. The well-being of fishers and wider communities by looking at changes to business sustainability, quality of life, mental health and physical health.


Email: inshore@gov.scot

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