A day in the life of a Salcombe fisherman

There is no doubt about it – Salcombe crab is some of the most delicious shellfish you will find anywhere in the world. The taste and quality is second to none. But how much do we really know about how it is caught, and what it takes to bring this mouth-watering treat to our plates. We spoke with local fisherman Jon Dornom to find out about a day in the life of a crab fisherman.

A typical day for me starts at 3.10am. After a quick cup of tea, it’s off to the Fish Quay in Salcombe where I meet my three crewmen at 4am. Here we board the smaller boat, and head out to Tenacious, our 50 tonne crabber, which is moored in the harbour.

We normally load all of our bait the day before – all 300 kilos of it. We use all sorts of things – gurnard, scad (horse mackerel), ray backs, small plaice, haddock and whiting, anything fresh crab loves! Bait can cost us anywhere between £250-£300 a day!

Once aboard Tenacious we carry out a number of run-of-the-mill engine checks and get everything up and running, which takes around 20 minutes. We normally head off at around 4.30am. It takes just over an hour to get to where we fish most of the year round, so were normally there by 5.30am-ish.

We then set to work hauling 600 crab pots, which we do in strings. We have 10 strings of 60 pots put down in one area at any one time. I actually have two sets of 600 pots, and at the height of the season I will be ‘working’ both sets on a two day lay down – so at any one time I might have 1200 crab pots in the water! When we are working like this it means we will haul and shoot 600 pots in one location one day, and the next we will do it with the 600 pots in the other location.

In terms of logistics, hauling, rebaiting, stacking and shooting the crab pots is no easy task. The string of 60 pots is around 1 mile in length, which is marked either end by a floating pink buoy. Think of the string of pots as a tree, around 70m down on the seabed. The main ‘back line’ is the tree trunk, anchored by weights at either end. Each crab pot is 30 metres apart, and is connected to the trunk by a shorter piece of rope, like the branches of a tree. When we haul the pots it is one continuous piece of rope, and the pots come to the side of the boat.

The crewman lifts the pot aboard, takes the out crabs by hand (and anything else we’ve caught… like giant eels!) He then rebaits the pot, before it is then carefully stacked on board. If we are on a roll, we can haul 60 pots in 40 minutes.

The person in charge of taking the crabs out of the pots needs to be experienced and know what they are doing. There are some criteria that our crabs have to meet – hen crabs have to be at least 150mm across the widest point of their shell, and the cock crabs have to be at least 160mm. The majority of what we haul is female crabs. You can tell hen crabs from cock crabs as their underside is much more rounded.

Our crabs also have to be checked to ensure they are not ‘soft shell’. Every time crabs moult their shells, they grow 15-20%. Often only experience tells you what is a ‘soft shell’ crab and has to be put back… although sometimes it is obvious… occasionally you see a soft shell crab that is like a sponge!

One of the most important things to us is sustainable fishing. We look after everything we catch, and anything we catch that is too small, soft shell or indeed not crab is returned to the water alive, and done so in such a way that it will stay alive. You have to look after where you fish. I am fishing in the same place my father and grandfather fished, and there is still plenty of crab, because we have looked after our breeding crabs… they are our future.

Once the pots are emptied, the next crew member baits and stacks them in order. If we are in slightly difficult conditions, you have to consider ‘roll’ – we don’t want 60 pots precariously stacked on the deck!

We then have to ‘shoot’ the pots again. We use a specially designed shooting ramp, so that the rope drags the pots in to the sea, rather than the crewmen having to get too involved for safety reasons.

The catch is then kept in blue bins (bongos) on the deck of Tenacious until we land. The bongos hold 50 – 55 kg of crab and are fed by sea water. On a good day we would hope to catch 20-25 bongos of crab (1200-1500 crabs), although on our very best days we have caught in excess of 50 bongos!

We sell to two markets. The live market, which mainly gets exported to China (for this all crabs have to have the claws ‘nicked’ as we haul them, to ensure they can’t hurt one another), and to the factories in this country. For this, they go on a chilled lorry to a seafood factory in Paignton, where they are stunned, killed, cooked to a certain temperature and then processed.

We also sell our biggest cock crabs to Britannia Shellfish at Beesands, where it is sold to London restaurants for a premium.

Once we have hauled our 600 pots we head back to Salcombe to land our catch and load up the bait for the following day. Our normal day is 12-13 hours long, and we aim to fish every day that it is viable. We normally end up going to sea around 200 days a year.

I then have to do a bit of paper work, grab some dinner and aim to be in bed by 9.30pm, ready to do it all again the next day.

I have been a fisherman in Salcombe all my life, just like generations of my family before me. I started fishing when I was just 5 years old from a rowing boat – by the time I was 7 my father had bought me my own boat, and I would head out to Starehole Bay to fish… even though I didn’t learn to swim until I was 11! I can honestly say that I love my job, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Jon and his boat Tenacious will be on Normandy Pontoon during the Crabfest, selling live crabs on behalf of both himself and other local fishermen. Any proceeds made from the crab sales will be donated directly to the fisherman’s benevolent fund set up by the organisation South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen.    

Come along to meet Jon, and take a look in Tenacious’ tanks – where children can see crab and other fish up close!