Eastern Promise

The character of many small fishing ports around the Forth is stopped from falling into the soporific boredom of marinas like Port Edgar by the remaining fishing boats that still ply their trade. Though oysters may be a thing of the past and deep sea fishing goes on only from Pittenweem and Eyemouth, the backbone of the remaining ports—especially those in East Lothian, is landing lobsters.

But, unlike other major producers like Maine in the States, the business here is pretty ramshackle. Until recently, virtually all East Lothian lobsters were sold wholesale to Eyemouth dealers who would ship them to Spain for consumption by the tourists—many of them Scottish. Prices were low, crabs had no market and, with weather unpredictable and overheads  growing, it was becoming a marginal way of making a living. Several old hands passed away, some younger ones found better money on a steady wage and few school leavers saw the fishing as any kind of future.

All this may have the sound of fatalistic finality for the lifeblood of small ports around the Forth but it need not be so. Maine lobstermen had already shown how a good business can be made by controlling both who can fish where and the distribution channel. Their Homarus americanus is very similar to our Homarus gammarus, but with larger claws. But their real secret is to make them available: a half kilo live lobster in carry-on container is available at Boston’s Logan airport for $60 (£40).

So, though the life may be equally hardy, lobstermen make a far better living in Maine than they do around the Forth, where most are hostile to their fellow fishermen and much ill-will comes from fleets of creels being shot indiscriminately in waters other think are theirs. It’s a little like a farmer driving a combine down a country road and harvesting whichever field takes his fancy.

The people who have improved the local lobstermen’s lot have not been fishermen themselves. From a small start with the Lobster Shack on the harbour-side in North Berwick, this has expanded to include the nearby Rocketeer and a branch on George Street, as well as other restaurants starting to offer lobster on their menu. Moving their fresh catch this way means they effectively earn double for the same amount of work.

The other boost is a long-term one where the Lobster Hatchery takes berried hens (female lobsters with fertilised eggs serried under their tail) which normally must be thrown back, removes the eggs for hatching and returns the now salable lobster to the fisherman. The eggs are hatched, developed as larvae and then released onto local lobster grounds as 1″-size mini-lobsters which have 1,000%+ greater chance of surviving to maturity than an egg. In 6-8 years they will mature to boost yield from the areas where they were released.

But all of this still doesn’t keep pace with what the Maine lobstermen are up to now. Back in 2009, they tried exporting to the growing Chinese middle class, to whom a steamed, whole crustacean — flown in live from the United States — is not just a festive delicacy and a good-luck symbol but also a mark of prosperity. They managed to add $2m to their business. While that is impressive, last year they had boosted it to $90m and their lobsters were retailing for $50-$100, still expensive, but more affordable than the previously dominant Australian rock lobster (Panulirus cygnus), which can cost hundreds of dollars and doesn’t have the big meaty claws of the American variety.

China took about 12% of U.S. lobster exports in 2014, up from 0.6 percent in 2009. Lobsters and other foods seen as luxuries are popular at Lunar New Year and other festive occasions. The bright red of a cooked lobster is considered lucky, as is its resemblance to a dragon. The boom has put more money in the pockets of lobstermen and kept shippers and processors busy during the usually slack midwinter months. China also imports lobsters from Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, but the market for the U.S. variety is exploding, with the demand strong year-round, not just at New Year’s. There are now 144 boats operating in Maine. Why are we Scots not in on this booming business?

There are a variety of reasons. First of all, the Scottish Government’s so-called business arm Scottish Enterprise are a chocolate teapot when it comes to sticking their neck out to exploit opportunity with their £400m annual budget. Despite Scotland £1.1bn food and drink export business, lobsters get no mention on their website. Secondly, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation spends most of its time fighting for the deep-sea fishermen that dominate it and their Inshore Committee seems happy just to haud the jaikets in the occasional dispute. Thirdly, smaller organisations like the Forth Estuary Forum could be called ineffectual toothless talking shops—if that were not an insult to ineffectual toothless talking shops around the world.

But, mostly, the reason lies with the absence of any organisation prepared to define what is needed and then campaign to assemble the coherent lobby and marketing support that Maine lobstermen enjoy. Individual ports and even councils are too small and preoccupied with other things. The most experienced fishermen are comfortable in their ways and not enough newbies are coming in with an eye on a more profitable future.

But, if someone were to pull together effective local fishermens’ associations, allocate them so-called ‘Several Orders’ to take certain species from certain areas and cobble together a marketing channel to compete with Maine (coastline = 3,478 miles) in the still-booming Chinese market, Scotland (coastline 10,250 miles) could become a world-class player in lobsters and our young people would flood back into a lucrative business (tough though it is) that might pay well over £250 a day for hauling a fleet of 50 creels.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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