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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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