Fishing Lines: How to make lobsters out of concrete

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The Independent Online

Told you so. Nineteen years ago, the very first story I wrote for this newspaper has come to pass. The column suggested that sea angling around much of our coastline might find a saviour in the oil industry. Yup. Those same mercenary toerags whose profits have risen 75 per cent in the past quarter, but who still claim their business is cyclical.

When the Indy was just a twinkle in someone's eye, the brains behind it decided the "It'll be all right on the night" approach was a teeny bit risky. They carried out dummy runs for weeks, printing a few copies and trying them out on a tiny, select audience. I wrote two columns that were only seen by the sports editor, the skeleton staff and a couple of hundred readers. (The last lot clearly had superb taste, for they demanded that the fishing column appeared weekly rather than fortnightly.)

I've no idea what the second column was about. Those were the days of floppy disks, dot-matrix printers and computers the size of a house. I'm sure it was superbly written, witty and incisive. Then again, it may have been a load of tosh. Can't remember.

But I do recall the first one. This chap in Aberdeen, Eric something, was pushing the idea that discarded oil rigs could be the salvation of struggling fishing communities. Once rigs have stopped pumping out oil, you can't leave them. Too perilous to shipping. You can't bring them onshore for decommissioning. Too expensive, and all that steel would depress the domestic market.

Eric's answer was to sink them a few miles off the ailing ports and turn them into fish-attracting reefs. Unlike cars, which rot to nothing in a few years, high-grade steel lasts a century or more.

Within a short time, small sea creatures would populate the reef. Then bigger things that eat the small ones (on land, they'd be called lawyers) would turn up. Within a few years, you'd have a thriving underwater town. It would provide commercial and rod-and-line fishing, with the local town policing its reef and stopping the dastardly Spaniards or Russians from nobbling the fish. The scheme had worked in Florida, so why not in the UK?

Journalists, alas, have a low attention span. I forgot all about it until this week, when I read that an artificial reef in Loch Linnhe, near Oban, had been so successful that others were planned. Made with 10,000 tonnes of honeycombed concrete blocks, the reef has seen sea life increase 16 times in the area since 2002, with cod, lobster and other shellfish moving in.

The Scottish Association for Marine Science, who are behind the project, are planning a similar reef off Aberdeen. Professor William Ritchie, the director of the Aberdeen Institute for Coastal Science and Management, said: "In years to come, we will see artificial reefs emerging around the coast of Britain."

The reef's biggest attraction, it seems, is for lobster "ranching", where juveniles are planted on the reefs and then grow to eating size. So, apart from the fact that it's lob- sters rather than fish, and concrete rather than steel, and in Oban rather than on the east coast, I got it dead right. Nineteen years later.