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The revival of a traditional skill that could save the seabed of Plymouth Sound

This weekend is the Plymouth and Harbour Seafood Festival, where you will be able to sample some of the tastiest street food made with local catches, and the best seafood you can get in the South West.

You also will be able to see first-hand a traditional fishing practice that is being resurrected because it is more environmentally friendly.  Dave French a Plymouth local and fifth-generation lobster pot maker will be demonstrating the heritage practice of making a ‘withy pot’.

These pots are made from branches of willow trees, also referred to as ‘withy’ and woven in traditional Devon or Cornish styles. 

All lobster or crab pots made in this way are known as withy pots, and any of these pots will catch lobsters or crabs depending on the bait used. 

Modern pots are not environmentally friendly, they are composites of metal, polypropylene rope, rubber tyre shreds and different kinds of plastic. These pots are difficult to properly recycle because they are a mixture of different materials. When a plastic pot is lost underwater it can create a vicious cycle for crabs and lobsters trapped inside. Because these plastic pots do not break down naturally underwater, they carry on trapping crabs and lobsters for the life of the pot, so almost indefinitely unless recovered to the surface. 

As a diver and lead organiser for The 1000 Tyres Project, I have seen first-hand the effects of lost plastic lobster and crab pots within Plymouth Sound.  We find plastic pots that have been sitting on the seabed for years filled with crabs too big to get out and it is a vicious circle, dead crabs inside the pot attract other marine life that also gets trapped.  We have rescued some lobsters that got caught in a lost plastic pot and are still alive but starving because they have nothing to eat. 

A scientific study has shown that a lost plastic pot can kill over 100 crabs or lobsters over 15 years if the pot is left on the seabed.

We come across lost crab and lobster pots when we are working on the bottom of Plymouth Sound, and all I can think is, there has to be a better way. This was why I was so happy to see the withy pots being made on the barbican by Dave French at last year’s Seafood Festival.

If they get lost, Dave’s withy pots will break down naturally in the water and allow the trapped marine life to escape and not become bait for the next lobster walking by. Because the withy pots are only made of willow branches they are 100% organic and will not pollute our oceans. 

What makes the withy pots important is that these pots can be used for commercial fishing without adding to the lost fishing gear pandemic, and with maintenance, the withy pots are a similar price to a plastic pot and can last 1.5-2 years. 

It takes 4–5 hours for a skilled withy pot maker to make a full-size pot, although historically families would work together to make pots with each person working on a separate piece, allowing for quicker production.  

Only a handful of people today still carry on the practice of making these pots, but that is now changing.  Dave French and Sarah Ready have been teaching people how to make withy pots and have been testing their environmentally friendly pots on commercial fishing boats.  Dave has been teaching the practice for the past 20 years but recently the practice of withy pot making has received more attention as it is an old technology that can solve a modern problem. 

Sarah and Dave have been working on several trial programs using the withy pots in a commercial setting and are very happy with the results, so hopefully, more fishermen will swap their polluting plastic pots for withy pots in the future. Although the withy pots do need maintenance by a skilled hand, it’s a skill that can be learned easily, just as the one learns the skills for working on a boat. 

With Sarah Ready’s passion to get the withy pots back on fishing boats and Dave French’s hard work teaching withy pot making all over the country, I believe we can learn from the past to make our ocean’s future better.

If you are interested in Dave French and Sarah Ready’s work you can follow their work on Facebook at WILLOW Crab/Lobster Pots and head down to Plymouth Seafood and Harbour Festival this weekend and go and say hi!



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