This is why you'll probably be eating American lobster soon

UK lobster: the world is no longer its oyster.

Those of you getting used to seeing cheap frozen lobsters in supermarket freezers and shaking your heads at the distinctly non-luxury pricetags, may be surprised to hear the UK is suffering a crustacean supply crisis.

According to Alistair Sinclair, chairman of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF), the UK’s ongoing triple-dip winter has seen grim weather on the East coast of Scotland wreck fishing gear, leaving lobstermen stuck on shore, and depleting stockpiles to the point of exhaustion.

“The boys haven’t been out for five months” warns Sinclair, whose organisation represents a £39m per year industry, “and when they do get out, they’re finding that a lot of the gear is damaged, so they’re having to spend more time on shore to repair it.”

The last year’s Scottish lobster catch was 90 per cent down year-on year, he says, and the ponds and vats in which the Autumn catch was stockpiled for distribution over the Christmas period are now long empty.

What comes next is a massive hike in UK-caught lobster prices - according to the BBC, the Scottish market has already seen them shoot from £15 to £25 per kilo in the last three weeks. Restaurants are hauling lobster dishes off menus, or worse yet, in Sinclair’s view at least, switching over to using imported North American stock.

It is, by and large, exports from Northeastern US and Canadian fisheries that lie behind the rash of cheap lobster appearing in the UK over the last few years – an economic shift also rooted in sweeping environmental change.

With cod, a major predator of young lobsters, being long scarce in the waters off America’s Eastern Seaboard, and warmer temperatures increasing the density of food available to young animals, lobster fisheries have boomed, leading to an unprecedented crash in prices.

The summer of 2012 saw Maine lobster prices collapse from around $4 per pound to just $2 per pound, spurring Maine’s Lobster Advisory Council to throw $3m of marketing money into convincing Americans to eat more lobster, and spurring exporters to push even more frozen decapod into overseas markets.

“I’ve eaten one of those £6 lobsters” says Sinclair, “or rather I should say, I’ve eaten part of one. I can assure you they are not the same as Scottish stock.”

But it’s not just budget Euro supermarket chains offering the overseas stock – relatively upmarket chains like London’s Burger & Lobster, which sells lobster at a flat price of £20, get all their stock from Canada, and do not expect to see prices increase as a result of the problems in Scotland.

Yet while there is an issue of quality at stake here, the greater worry is economic and social: with the UK gorging itself on American lobster and domestic prices skyrocketing, Sinclair says that a great deal of his federation’s 500 members stand to lose their livelihood altogether.

“We have to do something to catch up. The American fisheries are 20-30 years ahead of us” he says.

In order to close the gap, the SCFF is seeking government support for the construction and maintenance of lobster hatcheries: a facility measuring just six feet by six feet, Sinclair says, is capable of putting out five million lobsters per year, and would ensure a greater density of catch for those fisherman able to get out in bleak weather.

But until something shifts on this front, it seems UK consumers with a taste for lobster should get used to the taste of Eastern Atlantic stock.

Delicious. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.