The Lives of Lobsters: A Visit To Padstow’s National Lobster Hatchery

A few weeks ago, we paid our friends at Padstow Lobster Hatchery a visit to learn more about these incredible crustaceans, and the conservation work being done to ensure that stocks remain at sustainable levels. It was a fascinating day.

Lobster is a delicacy, both because of its sweet and succulent meat and because of the price tags attached to them. That price tag is well deserved; lobster are wild creatures and the specimens that end up on people’s plates in European restaurants aren’t farmed, or fished; they are trapped in baited pots by fishermen in small boats who have an intimate knowledge of the coastal waters in which they fish. It’s a game of tempting and trapping a wild and wily creature, and it is hard, skilled, and often dangerous and uncomfortable work.

the mary d fishing boat returning to Port Isaac harbour

Padstow Lobster hatchery sits on the waterfront of Padstow harbour on the Camel Estuary. It is a marine conservation, research and education charity with a popular visitor center where the general public can learn about the lifecycles of lobster and the pioneering work that they do to conserve and regenerate native lobster populations. The aim of the lobster hatchery is not to stop people from consuming them (I’m not sure they’d have welcomed us as they did, if that was the case!), but to work to restore and maintain the wild population at a level that is healthy and acknowledges and allows lobster to continue to be caught and consumed in sustainable numbers.

chef rupert cooper talking to chris weston at  padstow lobster hatchery

Why Do Lobsters Need Protecting?

In the late 1980s, Chief Fisheries officer and former fisherman Edwin (Eddy) Derriman MBE noticed that lobster catches and therefore populations were declining. The Scandinavian lobster fishery had seen a similar drop in the late 1960s and early 70s and the fishery ultimately collapsed, and Eddy was seriously worried that the same could happen in Cornwall. He put in place measures to manage the fisheries, and in 1998 he founded the lobster hatchery in an effort to conserve still vulnerable stocks and support wild populations of native lobster. The National Lobster hatchery was officially opened in 1998 and became a charity in 2004. Since its creation, the hatchery has released over 250,000 baby lobsters into the wild, and well over half a million visitors have visited the hatchery to learn about the sustainability issues associated with fishing, and in particular lobsters.

juvenlie lobster in a test tube being moved at national lobster hatchery in padstow

What The National Lobster Hatchery Does

The National Lobster Hatchery works to increase the survival rate of baby and juvenile lobsters, with the ultimate aim of ensuring a healthy and sustainable wild population that can withstand the pressures of fishing. A female lobster can carry between 4,000 and 40,000 eggs, however only 1 in 20,000 of these are expected to survive in the wild. Only approximately 0.005% survive to become adult lobsters. When they first hatch, baby lobster larvae are so small that they float in the water column and are essentially a type of plankton – meaning that they’re a food source for fish, jellyfish, anemones and even sea birds until they are around a month old and are large enough to burrow into the sea bed and find protection from predators.
To increase survival rates, the team at the NLH collects lobster eggs and raises the larvae until they are around three months old and large enough to have a much higher chance of survival in the wild, at which point they are released.
A number of local fishermen around Cornwall are licensed to land “berried hens” which are egg-bearing female lobsters. These lobsters have their claws bound with colour-coded tape to denote the fisherman who landed it (and to prevent them from fighting in the tanks) so that the lobster can be returned to the fisherman later for sale or release.

berried hen lobster with lots of eggs at the national lobster hatchery in padstow

“Lobsters take approximately seven years to reach adulthood, but the crucial thing that we capitalise on is the difference between being plankton as larvae, and being part of the food chain, and being a juvenile and being able to burrow.”

– Chris Weston, Senior Hatchery Technician
lobster larvae at the national lobster hatchery

The gestation period for a lobster egg is between 9 and 12 months, with the temperature of the water impacting how quickly an egg will hatch. Female lobsters lay their eggs under their tails between June and September, but the team at the NLH can control the volume of lobster larvae and juveniles that they are raising in the hatchery by controlling the temperature of the water in the “Maternity Ward” tanks that the berried hens are kept in. Colder water slows down development and extends the gestation period. They also hold lobsters in colder water during busy periods because slowing down their metabolism stops them from fighting so much so more lobsters can be accommodated within each tank. When we visited, Chris showed us one tank where hens were being kept in 11 degree water and another where hens were being held in 17 degree water to encourage faster hatching.

“We’re in constant communication with the twenty or so fishermen who we work with who are licensed to land berried hen lobsters, demanding different amounts of lobster at different times of year.  It depends on how full we are and how many lobsters we can handle, and therefore what stage of egg development, indicated by the colour of the eggs, we’d like them to land for us.”

– Chris Weston, Senior Hatchery Technician
chef rupert cooper talking to chris weston at padstow lobster hatchery

Most of the eggs hatch at night and it’s believed that lobster larvae use the moon to orientate themselves and move towards the surface of the sea – there is naturally more phytoplankton here (tiny plants) that the zooplankton (tiny animals, like the lobster larvae) want to feed on. For the first few hours after hatching the larvae are positively buoyant which helps them to get to the surface. At the hatchery, these buoyant lobster larvae are filtered out of the maternity tank and every morning they are collected from a holding tank and transferred to communal cones.

juvenile lobster at the national lobster hatchery in padstow

The communal cones are large aerated tanks and each batch of larvae will stay in there for approximately 16 days. The water is constantly moving to mimic their natural environment in the water column, and to minimize the chances of them bumping into each other – lobsters are carnivorous from birth and when they bump into something in the water column they will grab it and try to eat it, even if it’s another lobster larvae. Each brood is grown on in those communal cones through their first three stages of development, and once they reach the 4th stage – the point at which they are around 20mm long and look and behave much more like mini lobsters – they are moved into specially designed trays. These trays have individual compartments to keep the juvenile lobster separated (that cannibalism issue again!) and the trays are stacked in upwelling tanks so that the stage 4 juveniles can be fed and reared until they are around three months old and ready for release.

juvenile lobster larvae in trays at the national lobster hatchery

Juvenile lobsters are released when they are large enough to settle on the seabed and burrow into it for protection. From their burrows they hunt for worms and other invertebrates, moulting several times as they grow. Lobsters are cold water crustaceans and grow slowly, taking around seven years to reach adulthood. When their carapace (the shell covering their head and upper-body reaches 90mm in length they are large enough for fishermen in Cornwall to legally land them – under that, or if they are “notched” (when breeding age adults have a notch cut in their tail to signal that they should be left as breeding stock) or are egg bearing females, then the fishermen must return them to the wild. Some lobsters that find their way onto diners plates are in the region of twenty years old; that’s why preservation of stocks is so critically important.

Chris and his colleagues at NLH release juvenile lobsters either from the shore (into rock pools), by tube release from boats in partnership with fishermen who have identified suitable release sites, or directly onto the seabed by divers. They have recently trialed a scheme, the ‘Lobster Grower’ project, releasing juvenile lobsters into a large enclosed pen at a site in St Austell Bay off the south coast of Cornwall, so that the development of released juveniles can be measured and analysed by re-trapping and measuring the NLH hatched lobsters at intervals.

young lobster with blue shell

The team at the National Lobster Hatchery estimate that through their work they are able to increase the survival rate of lobster larvae by 1000 times, so from 1 in 20,000 to a 1 in 20 chance of survival. Every year they aim to release around 50,000 juvenile lobsters into the wild. It’s inevitable that some of these will in due time be trapped and served up as somebody’s dinner, but they are realistic about what they do. “It’s not helpful to pit the local small boat fishermen against the conservation sector,” Chris told us, “Up to 95%, we want the same thing: we want a healthy population of lobster. Whether that’s for the ecosystem benefits, or so that some of them can be used for food is the last 5%. From our perspective, we want a healthy population of lobsters around Cornwall and the South West, but we understand that the pressures come from fishing and that there’s a massive market for them. If you take a step back and look at the broader scheme of things, lobster probably isn’t the worst thing that people have eaten. There are a lot more destructive forms of fishing so if people can’t eat lobster perhaps they’ll turn to something else that isn’t being careful managed or fished. If done properly and sustainably, it doesn’t have to be a terrible thing, but it’s a very nuanced topic.”

lobster and pollack aboard a fishing boat

As well as working with local fishermen to source egg-bearing females, the team at the National Lobster Hatchery also work with chefs and restaurateurs, and run a very successful fundraising partnership scheme called ‘Buy One, Set One Free’. Participating establishments simply include an opt-out customer donation of £1 onto every lobster dish sold, which goes directly to the National lobster Hatchery to enable them to raise and release baby lobsters back into coastal waters on customers’ behalf.

“You are not only offsetting a little of what’s been caught, but longer term it’s an investment in the sustainability of the fishery and your ability to get hold of and enjoy lobster.”

Clare Stanley, NLH Business Development Manager
lobster pot buoy and flag at sea

It’s pioneering schemes like ‘Buy One, Set One Free’, and the clearly forward thinking and determined nature of the NLHH’s founder and team that have allowed them to have achieved so much. There is no doubt that they’ve had a huge impact on local lobster populations, saving them from the threat of imminent collapse and providing ongoing safeguards for our fragile marine resources and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.
If you’re in a situation to be able to afford to order lobster from a restaurant menu, then please look for or ask them about the National Lobster Hatchery’s ‘Buy One, Set One Free’ scheme, consider donating via their website to support their work, and if you’re ever visiting Padstow then pay them a visit on the harbour side.

For our next article, and in full recognition of the fact that we’re a cookery school that sometimes teaches how to cook and eat lobster, we’re going to post a recipe for amazing lobster rolls. Eating lobster isn’t a bad thing, as long as you’re buying your lobster from a sustainable source (preferably a small day-boat fisherman, like Callum at Fresh from The Sea in Port Isaac who is one of the fishermen who works with the National Lobster Hatchery) and all thanks to the great work of the NLH ensuring that local lobster populations are healthy enough to support them being fished and consumed. Check back next week for that recipe!

Find out more about the National Lobster Hatchery here.

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