A visit to North Berwick sees Morag Bootland discover a very special hatchery which is helping to safeguard the future of lobster fishing in East Lothian
This month we spotlight East Lothian: discovering great walks, lovely lobsters and a spooky legacy of goblins and wizards
creels. Jane McMinn on North Berwick Harbour, surrounded by This little lobster is around one year old.
They have the power to regenerate, they live for around 70 years and they are cannibalistic. Combine this with the fact that they regularly split their shells and scuttle out backwards to await their jelly-like bodies hardening to accommodate their growth and you would be forgiven for imagining a being somewhat akin to the alien in the sci-fi movie of the same name. But these creatures are from much closer to home, and on North Berwick harbour, hidden amongst the leisure boats and fishing creels, is a place that is helping to ensure the future of these incredible animals. The Firth of Forth Lobster Hatchery was the brainchild of local fishermen David Grubb and Jack Dale and skipper Jane McMinn, who set up in their hatchery in 2010. The idea for a lobster hatchery was born out of concern for Scotland’s lobster population in the wake of the Norwegian lobster fishery collapse of the 1980s. ‘Their population literally went from thousands of tons to just ten and it still hasn’t recovered, despite the Norwegians being at the forefront of hatcheries,’ Jane tells me as she shows me round the facility. The many fisherman who catch lobster in the Firth of Forth along the beautiful East Lothian coastline were becoming increasingly concerned not only about the slump in the numbers of lobsters that they were catching, but also by their reduced size. As the lobsters become smaller and smaller, quickly approaching the minimum catchable size, the area’s fishermen got a very clear indication about dropping populations. Lobsters are blessed with thousands of tiny black eggs which the ‘berried’ hens carry around on their underside. She will cast off the eggs as tiny larvae which are very vulnerable to predation by fish. From these thousands of eggs, Jane tells me, that survival rates are extremely low. ‘Perhaps only one will survive to catchable size, which is usually reached at around five to seven-years-old.’ At the hatchery fisherman bring in berried hens so that the larvae can be taken care of until they are beyond their most delicate stage. ‘When we let them go they are past the really vulnerable floating stage and are starting to behave like wee lobsters,’ says Jane. ‘We release them when they have reached a size that they can go and hide and we ensure that they are let go into places where they can live as safely as possible. The idea is that where one out of a female’s batch might have survived,
perhaps 250 will survive instead. It’s a massive increase.’ The hatchery incorporates an education centre where tourists and groups can learn about the life cycle of a lobster and the work that the hatchery does, as well as a small gift shop. Small income streams from tourist donations and gift shop purchases are essential to the continued running of the hatchery, which receives no funding. Jane is also very busy touring local schools and groups to talk about the work that they do. ‘There’s no money in it,’ says Jane. ‘It’s not a good business case, but it is a good sustainable fishing conservation project. If you have a healthy lobster then you know you have a healthy, good quality sea around you. So our plan is just to keep going year by year, because nobody ever says that the hatchery is a terrible idea. So we all work really hard and contribute a wee bit every week to keep it going.’ The hatchery has even played host to Julie Walters as part of her coastal railways television series. Jane was lucky enough to be able to take her out on her boat. The harbour at North Berwick was built around 1150 and originally served as a ferry port for pilgrims travelling to Fife. East Lothian has a long fishing heritage and at one time North Berwick harbour was a busy hub with a large fleet of boats and catches being sent far and wide. Today the majority of boats that work out of North Berwick and neighbouring harbours in Dunbar and Prestonpans are fishing on a much smaller scale, some of them just part-time, but they are upholding a valuable tradition. North Berwick first began to attract tourists in the late 19th century. Train services from Edinburgh and London brought wealthy families to holiday in the area where they enjoyed
the outdoor swimming pool and the glorious sandy beaches. Today there are still plenty of reasons to visit the East Lothian coastline and North Berwick in particular. The outdoor pool might be gone, but as well as the hatchery it is home to the Scottish Seabird Centre, which runs boat trips in the Firth of Forth to Craigleith and the Bass Rock. Depending on the time of year you can watch gannets dive for fish or puffins nesting on the rocky cliffs. Web cams also provide great views of the birds from the warmth of the discovery centre. The hatchery is undoubtedly a valuable link in the circle of life. The fishermen bring in berried hens and the hatchery return the larvae to the water, allowing the fishermen to catch more lobster, the majority of which go to fabulous Lobster Shack and the Rocketeer restaurant which are both situated on the harbour at North Berwick. The shack does a roaring trade, cooking up fresh, local seafood over the summer months. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the freshest, most locally sourced seafood with a glass of prosecco out in the sea air without worrying about food miles, and it’s all the better after paying a visit to the hatchery to learn more about these fascinating crustaceans and how Jane, David and Jack are championing their cause.
The Firth of Forth Lobster Hatchery is open from Easter until October. www.firthofforthlobsterhatchery.org.uk
East Lothian has a long fishing heritage and North Berwick harbour had a large fleet
Main image: Above:
Above: Jane McMinn and her dog Bentley enjoy showing visitors around the hatchery.
Above: Fishing boats shelter behind the wall at North Berwick Harbour. Below left: The Lobster Shack does a roaring trade. Below right: The freshest lobster and chips enjoyed with a side of sea air.