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A LIFE FOR THE BIG CATCH

Each day fishermen sail out from the harbour in the small Scottish village of Pittenweem on the Firth of Forth estuary on the North Sea coast and catch lobsters and brown crabs. The work is hard, but nobody here would change it for the world.

A life for the big catch

Love for the sea

By the time Nick Irvine finally sets sail in his Vanguard, he has already carried out a huge amount of work: he has cleaned the ten-by-five-metre catamaran, bought new bait at the fish market and checked the tank as well as the weather and sea charts. He has also already pulled the thick rubber boots and yellow waterproof trousers over his threadbare camouflage cargo pants and a blue waterproof jumper over his thick hoody.

“I can’t imagine having any other life than that of a fisherman,” says the 44-year-old Scot, who has spent his entire life on the Firth of Forth, an estuary located on the east coast of Scotland, a good hour’s drive away from Edinburgh. An office job? “A horrible idea,” he says. Move to a large city like Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen? “No – too many people, not enough space, far away from my family.” But above all: “I would no longer have the sea right on my doorstep.”

Nick Irvine

Nick always wanted to be a fisherman

And that has been his life, his fascination, since he was a young boy. “When I was ten or twelve years old, I was already going out fishing, before and after school.” He didn’t inherit this fascination for the back-breaking job from his parents. “But my brother is also a fisherman. Together, we own five boats,” says Nick.

And they go out on the boats almost every working day, in summer and winter. “We take a break at the weekend,” he says. Nick has deposited around 400 lobster traps off the North Sea coast. Each day dozens of them are collected, emptied and filled with new bait – a tiring job that he completes with his crew, Josh and Roger. “When the sea is calm, it is the most beautiful place in the world,” says Nick with enthusiasm. However, it is often windy here, it is cool, even when the sun is shining, and the water is rough. “But you get used to it very quickly.”

In winter, the lobsters do not move much

The traps are lowered into the sea at various locations. The sonar on board provides information about the underwater landscape because it is better to leave traps in areas of water where the seafloor is hilly. “This is where the lobsters prefer to move about and they will simply walk into our traps,” explains Nick. But this only happens in summer when the water temperature reaches more than ten degrees, even at greater depths. “In winter, the lobsters all but stop moving,” says Nick. No wonder: at that point the water in the North Sea is rarely warmer than three or four degrees – the crustaceans are in survival mode.

Everything happens very quickly once Nick reaches one of his buoys. He pulls in the rope through a large slot. Roger and Josh are ready for the cages that their boss pulls out of the water. They are heaved onto a table and, while Roger uses his trained eye to select the brown crabs and lobsters that are suitable to go to the market, Josh takes a handful of dead fish from the crate and stuffs them into small bags in the traps.

They are to be used to attract the crustaceans. “Once the lobsters enter the traps because they have seen the fish, they cannot get back out again,” explains Nick. Inside, the traps are like a small labyrinth, and the lobsters cannot escape from the rearmost chamber.

While Roger throws the by-catch, such as mussels, starfish or other sea creatures, back into the water, Nick gets the next trap on board and Josh heaves the emptied cage to the adjacent free area. The traps are stacked here until the entire catch from one location has been gathered.

Catching lobsters

In the summer, the lobsters stack up in the traps

“In the summer we catch up to 400 lobsters a day, sometimes even more,” says Nick. This is because the cold North Sea at the Firth of Forth is full of these shellfish. Each fisherman has their spots where they throw out their traps. “We don’t get in each others’ way.” And they do not need to, because once back on shore, they hand their catch over to a cooperative that sells the shellfish on.

Nick explains that many lobsters and crabs are sent directly to Asia and Spain. There, distributors get good prices for catch from Scotland. Fish are harder to sell. “That’s also the reason why we specialised in lobsters and crabs – nothing else is worth the effort.”

Distribution of lobsters

Selling lobsters straight from the boat

In the summer, even Scottish people are enthusiastic about the precious shellfish that the fishermen get from the sea. “Sometimes, people wait for us on the quay and buy lobster straight from the boat.” This is not a problem since they bring more than enough catch to shore. “Sometimes the traps are so full that the creatures are almost stacked on top of each other inside them.”

When Nick finally sets a course back to Pittenweem, the working day is over for his two helpers – but the captain brings the catch to the buyers and starts to prepare the catamaran for the next day. The harbour houses a professional hot-water high-pressure cleaner from Kärcher, which makes it a lot easier to clean the deck. “We purchased the machine as a group, and it was an excellent investment,” he says. Nick cleans the thick ropes of his Vanguard using the machine, which can heat water up to 155 degrees. After a long day at sea, the ropes are a brownish colour but, once the hot-water high-pressure cleaner is used, they gleam in a deep bottle-green colour. Once the boat is clean, Nick turns his attention to the pier. He uses a Kärcher sweeper to collect the rubbish that is produced when loading and selling the lobsters and crabs.

After chatting to his fellow fishermen, Nick stops by the small ice-cream stand on the promenade and treats himself to an ice cream. He then makes his way home to his wife and daughter. Time to relax.

Cleaning of the boat

Lobsters like things clean

Fishing is a strenuous affair – and one that demands maximum cleanliness: The deck, the troughs for the catch, the hull, the ropes and particularly the traps. Because: Lobsters have good eyes. It is an advantage when the cage has no algae and they can already recognise the bait from some distance.

Cleaning with a hot water high-pressure cleaner
Cleaning of the nets
Cleaning with a sweeper

5 FACTS ABOUT SCOTLAND

  • Scotland is 78,772 square kilometres in size and its capital is Edinburgh.
  • “Haggis” is the national dish of Scotland, but it is not to everyone’s taste: the classic recipe involves a sheep’s heart, lung and liver being cooked in the animal’s stomach.
  • Scotland has nearly 800 islands, of which 130 are inhabited.
  •  “Harry Potter” is set in Scotland, amongst other places.
  • The raincoat was invented in 1824 by the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh. In Great Britain this item of clothing is still often called a “mac”.

     

Map of Scotland