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.