The proposals from the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation aim to increase lobster stocks by nurturing larvae in special rearing tanks before releasing shoals of the young shellfish into the sea once they are big enough to thrive.
It is hoped that creating hatcheries could bolster adult lobster numbers by up to five million a year.
Last month, figures from the SCFF showed that landings this year have declined by 90 per cent along the east coast after unseasonably cold weather forced the lobsters into prolonged hibernation.
Langoustine catches were reported to be down by around 70 per cent in the Clyde areas.
As a result, the wholesale price of Scottish lobster has shot up from £15 to £25 a kilo, compared with just £6 a kilo for imported Canadian lobster. Many consumers are now choosing north American lobster over locally produced because it is cheaper and there are reports of restaurants taking Scottish lobster off the menu due to the price hike.
Alistair Sinclair, the SCFF chairman, said creel fishermen were suffering after a poor start to the year and that hatcheries would be a “major boost”. “Lobster is as rare as hens’ teeth at the moment,” he said. “The east coast has experienced a winter of turbulence and a lot of damage has been caused by the winds. The prolonged cold snap has just set everything back.”
Scotland has just one operational lobster hatchery at the moment, in Orkney, with another under construction in Eyemouth. DR Collin, the seafish firm behind the Eye-mouth enterprise, plans to breed five million lobster larvae a year, and put around 1.75 million lobsters into the sea.
The SCFF is seeking backing from the Scottish Government to set up another three hatcheries at Cruden Bay, Kyle of Lochalsh and a location on the Clyde. “We are progressing towards the creation of lobster hatcheries around Scotland and have been in talks with Marine Scotland about this to bolster the stocks that we have,” said Sinclair.
The Scottish hatcheries will be based on a Canadian model which has been operating successfully for more than a decade. “The Canadians are way ahead of us with hatcheries. They are entering our market and we should look at their model,” said Sinclair.
“You can buy a [north American] lobster in a supermarket for £6. It affords people the luxury of eating a luxury food cheaply. These are no comparison to our lobster. There is a difference in quality. Restaurants want local produce and, because there is less around, that is why they pay more.
“If we were able to catch more, we would be able to compete against the Canadian and American imports in the supermarkets.”
Statistics suggest that in the wild fewer than 1 per cent of lobsters survive into adulthood. The benefit of hatcheries is that the larvae, from pregnant female lobsters, are transferred to tanks, where they are fed plankton.
As they grow they shed their shells and when they reach their third moult they start to look like their parents. Technicians then have to separate the young lobsters into individual rearing compartments as they become aggressive, often fighting to the death.
It is estimated that four operational hatcheries could breed enough larvae to produce 20 million lobsters, with the prospect of around five million reaching adulthood.
Some lobster hatcheries claim more than 40 per cent of the young can be expected to survive, but the SCFF is basing its figures on a more conservative estimate.
Creel fishing in Scotland is worth around £39 million a year, but the SCFF’s 500 members are facing difficult times. Sinclair said he hoped that hatcheries would not only produce more lobsters and lead to a reduction in price, but also mean more work for creel fishermen.
A spokeswoman for Marine Scotland, a Scottish Government agency, said: “The fisheries secretary, Richard Lochhead, is aware of interest from the industry in introducing lobster hatcheries and has commissioned a feasibility study which will inform future policy in this area. The findings of the study are expected in July.”
A spokesman for DR Collin confirmed it was developing a hatchery in Eyemouth and would hopefully have results “in a couple of months”.