50 years ago there were 14 boats fishing for lobsters off Barmouth and, not surprisingly, the population declined. At that concentration it just wasn’t sustainable. Today there’s just the one, skippered by John Johnson, the man who also runs fishing charters on Viking II and supplies tackle from his shop on the high street.
He welcomed me on board to see how, with the help of veteran lobsterman Ray Lewis, he goes about his business. I was lucky to be motoring out of harbour with still water and blue skies – frequent high winds had meant slim pickings for most of May and June.
About a mile out we reached and hooked a marker buoy and winched up a string of 12 pots. 1, 2 and 3 were lobsterless, temporary home to small fish, crabs and jellyfish eggs. Pot number 4 produced the first lobster.
Like a production line, each pot was opened, emptied and baited with a chunk of plaice then stacked in sequence on a bench ready for launching off the stern. Maybe 15 minutes to raise and relay the dozen.
Some pots were empty whilst others were crammed full of life, not just lobsters but edible crabs, spiders, hermits, velvets, butterfish, blennies and whelks to name but a few. The Fisheries ruler was used to measure the length of the lobster’s main shell from eye-socket to the start of the thorax. Any less than 87 mm were returned to the sea, about 75%, and many of these were so frustratingly borderline.
After about 3 hours we had 36 decent sized lobsters in the oxygenated tank with their claws held fast by strong rubber bands. Not for fear of humans being bitten but to limit the injuries they would inflict on each other. Some were so brilliant blue whilst others had more of an orange tinge – the difference between those that blend into a background of rock as opposed to shale.
John’s mobile rang and 18 were sold to the Lobster Pond (01341 281234), the quayside shop for live or cooked lobsters. The other 18 would be buried beneath the waves in one of his chests, ready for the dealer from Bangor who sources up the coastline from mid Wales. From Bangor they go to Spain where lobsters reach respectable prices.
Before returning to port John switched to fishing prawns in a similar fashion. A string of tubular prawn pots baited with ripe herring. 4 or 5 kilos were harvested and secured in the submarine stash.
Back ashore, slightly lobster pink despite my factor 30 sunblock, I had much more respect for this noble crustacean. For summer occasions and anniversaries there’s nothing quite like a fresh lobster from Barmouth caught by John or Ray. So much better than supermarket lobsters from Canada.