The Important Link Between Industry and Conservation – The Firth of Forth Lobster Hatchery

By Duncan MacDougall.

Too often, well-meaning conservation efforts conflict with local industry. There are many conservation projects which inadvertently involve trying to undermine huge swathes of local economies without considering the consequences of such reckless behaviour. Of course, successful conservation projects must have local people on their side. So, how can seemingly conflicting interests, conservation and industry, work hand in hand to benefit one another to bring sustainably prosperity to a shared community? In the seaside town of North Berwick on Scotland’s southeast coast, about 30 miles east of the capital, Edinburgh, such a scenario is manifesting itself within the lobster fishing industry.

The Firth of Forth Lobster Hatchery was founded by Jane McMinn (a local skipper) and local creel fishermen David Grubb and Jack Dale in response to evidence from a study conducted by local organisations such as the North Berwick Harbour Trust which suggested that transforming the local fishery of European lobster (Homarus gammarus)  into a sustainable industry was crucial to ensure continued prosperity into the future for stakeholders. Initially, back in 2010, a small shipping container was transformed into an information centre where visitors are informed of the method and function of the conservation work. Through the years, thanks to generous donations, funding, and support from local businesses such as the Lobster Shack where I am employed, they have expanded and now operate another container containing aquahives and pods where lobster larvae are reared. The aims of this project are to counteract the stock depletions seen over recent years and to work with local businesses to bring sustained prosperity to North Berwick.

Local fishermen such as Jack Dale supply the hatchery with ‘berried hens’ (female lobsters carrying eggs) which are kept in expansive tanks and the eventual larvae are transferred into pods where they receive planktonic food. These pods have a constant movement of water which encourages the larvae to remain in the miniature water column as opposed to the bottom where they may end up in conflict with one another. After the larvae’s third moulting, where they have transitioned from a planktonic stage to a benthic (seabed-dwelling) stage, they are moved into an aquahive where they are isolated from one another to avoid any consequences of their cannibalistic nature. At this stage in their life, the lobsters stand a drastically greater chance of survival to adulthood than larvae would have if hatched in the wild since at this stage, they have developed claws and hardened their exoskeleton. The release time is variable but usually, lobster juveniles are ready after around eight weeks where they are taken in the aquahive cells down to the seabed by a team of divers. Meanwhile, once the adult female lobster has fully spawned, the hatchery team participate in the V-notch scheme, where a v-shaped notch is cut out of the female’s tail without harm to the lobster. If this lobster is subsequently caught by fishermen, it must be released in accordance with the law.

Whilst creel fishing is one of the most environmentally sustainable fishing methods due to the ability to release all bycatch easily and alive, the limited impact on the seabed, and the enforced sustainability legislation such as the minimum landing size thresholds, local and national stocks have been heavily depleted due to overfishing to feed a high demand from Spain where eighty-five percent of Scottish shellfish is destined. This project will help to counteract the pressure from fisheries by potentially increasing the number of recruits (juveniles reaching legal landing size) whilst the v-notch scheme should result in more spawning females to create future lobster generations. Local businesses such as the famous Lobster Shack rely on the sustainability of this industry to survive. Such businesses bring in thousands of visitors to the town, many of whom will support other businesses and also venture down to the hatchery and leave donations whilst educating themselves about the importance of sustainability, which completes the link between the industry and conservation. The end product is a town which people may visit to sample the sustainable seafood, support the sustainability project, and even other businesses in the town to create affluence which may be sustained for generations.

However, with the unprecedented pandemic and the subsequent UK lockdown, the hatchery has faced plenty of challenges. Upon entering lockdown, Jane McMinn made the inevitable decision to close the hatchery for several months and alongside, ceasing production of juvenile lobsters. However, the hatchery is open again but unfortunately, the local female lobsters have finished ripening so there is no source of larvae. There are, however, discussions being held with a like-minded organisation in the Orkney Islands, to the north of Great Britain, where there may still be ripening females to provide a larval source.  The staff have been very active on social media to promote the hatchery and waves of tourists have been returning to the town since travel restrictions were lifted and are back supporting the organisation as well as the local businesses involved in the project. By working with the industry instead of against it, the hatchery has remained strong during the pandemic, despite the setbacks, and has overcome the challenges. With any luck, this remarkable example of a succeeding conservation project will prove to be beneficial to the lobster fishery in the Firth and Forth and perhaps elsewhere, others will take note.

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