Lobster potty
So, you want to dive and get paid for it. How do others do it? Craig Burton, shellfish research and development officer for the Sea Fish Industry Authority, talks about his job

I work at a marine farming unit in Ardtoe, which is in Ardnamurchan, on the west coast of Scotland. It’s quite a remote location, but very beautiful. I studied to be a marine biologist at university and a lot of my work involves liaising with fishermen and officials around the UK and abroad, but I also get to spend a good chunk of my time in the water.

The team at the unit researches and tests out new marine-fish farming methods. There are five divers altogether and we’re all HSE Part IV qualified. In fact, we’re a totally self-contained scuba unit – I’ve even done a diver medic course to help me deal with any emergency situations, should they arise.

The diving we do is mainly related to our own particular projects, but we also dive to carry out more general work for the Sea Fish Industry Authority. This can include anything from renewing sea pumps and pipelines to checking moorings, assessing fishing equipment and conducting surveys. Sometimes the visibility around here is an amazing 20m; at other times you can’t see a thing.

‘Releasing the lobsters was the best part, as they have to be taken down to the sea bed, so they don’t get eaten before they can find a safe place to hide’

 

I also do a lot of underwater photography, both stills and video – the resulting images are useful to show people just how our projects work. I’m not exactly Peter Scoones, but I have captured some unique footage of langoustine and razorfish!

My own specialist field is crustaceans, and lobsters and crabs in particular. One of my recent projects involved lobster larvae – we wanted to see if we could get them to grow in a hatchery to a size where they’d survive in the wild. It was previously considered impossible, but we thought that if we could make it work, lobster populations could be boosted or even completely regenerated in areas where they were in decline.

We started by bringing female lobsters in from the wild and taking them to our onshore hatcheries, where they laid their eggs. Three months after hatching, the larvae were 25mm long, at which point we tagged and released them into the wild.

The experiment was extremely successful – after a few years, the lobsters had grown large enough to be of commercial value and caught for consumption in lobster pots. As a result, I’m now working with the Italian government to help them set up hatcheries to boost the population of lobsters in the northern Adriatic Sea, where numbers have reached an all-time low.

Releasing the lobsters was the best part of the project, as they have to be taken right down to the sea bed (if you simply drop them into the water, they’ll probably get eaten before they manage to find a safe place to hide). So, we had the pleasure of diving down to set the lobsters free in waters off Ardtoe, as well as Scapa Flow in the north. (I must be the only person who’s been diving for years in Scapa Flow and never seen a German wreck!)

One of the downsides to the job is the remoteness of the location (despite its beauty). Although, saying that, I previously had a job with the Nature Conservancy Council [now the Joint Nature Conservancy Commission], conducting sea-bird surveys, which meant I was away at sea for about three weeks every month – I don’t think you can get much more remote than that!

Another part of the job I’m not crazy about is removing dead creatures from sea cages, as we had to do for a project in which we were experimenting with breeding halibut and cod off the coast from Ardtoe. We wear full-face masks to protect us from disease, but it can still be quite unpleasant.

Those minor points aside, mine really is an extremely satisfying job. I feel incredibly lucky to get paid to go diving, and I’m sure there are lots of people who’d like to do the same. If someone was interested in my line of work, I’d recommend that they get as much work experience with science-related organisations as possible – it gives you a good idea of what’s involved. And I spend a lot of my time talking to people, explaining how to set up projects similar to ours, so if you’re personable and outgoing, and able to translate complex concepts into everyday language, it makes things a lot easier.

I do still manage to fit in some recreational diving in the UK, and I’ve done a fair amount around the rest of Europe, including in the Mediterranean. Last year, I had my first taste of tropical diving, with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. It does feel funny to go diving without having a job to do, though.
Interview by Siski Green

Natural environment: top, Craig Burton taking a break, Argyll; above, the marine-fish farming unit at Ardtoe, Ardnamurchan. Photographs by Ann Burton and the Marine Farming Unit
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