Lobster pots in Arbroath, Scotland

The lowdown on crab and lobster in the UK

4 minute read

Charlotte Coombes

Charlotte Coombes

31 May 2022

There’s been a lot of talk about crab and lobster potting lately. We give the lowdown on what’s happening with these species and what the future might hold.

Our Good Fish Guide is rigorously reviewed and updated with the latest scientific advice twice a year. We focus on a different set of ratings each time. In our April 2022 update we reviewed crab and lobster in parts of the UK. The review found that there is now only one place in the UK catching green-rated, Best Choice brown crab: Shetland.

Similarly, when it comes to lobster, the only sustainable choice in the UK is from Jersey. Both of these are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, meaning they follow strict sustainability guidelines.

So, what issues are facing other crab and lobster fisheries?

fishing boats

Credit: Jack Clarke

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We need data

The first step towards making fishing more sustainable is to collect data. It’s vital to understand how well different species are doing in different areas.

For crab and lobster, this information is very patchy and sometimes outdated. In parts of the Irish Sea, eastern English Channel and most of Scotland, scientists don’t have enough data.

This not only limits the ability to evaluate whether populations are healthy, it means that regulators can’t tell whether fishing is causing population declines. If they don’t know that, then they can’t accurately regulate it.

In the vast majority of lobster and brown crab populations in the UK, either the data shows that the populations are smaller than they should be, or there is no information at all. In most cases, fishing is estimated to be above sustainable levels. We’re really concerned about this.

We want to see regular, up to date stock assessments throughout the UK to build a picture of what’s happening under the waves.

Charlotte Coombes, Good Fish Guide Manager
Boats in Tobermory

Credit: Calum Duncan

Fishing controls

The second crucial part of sustainable fishing is to have appropriate fishing controls that are properly enforced. These rules should change depending on the population size. If a species population is in sharp decline, the amount that can be caught is reduced until it recovers.

The approach to controlling crab and lobster fishing varies throughout the UK. At present, nowhere has catch limits in place. Catch limits are an important way to set clear guidelines for how many crabs and lobsters can be caught each year.

Some areas limit how many pots can be put into the sea at once. This limits how much shellfish can be caught – to an extent. However, if the pot limits are too high, then they won’t stop overfishing.

Lobster pots in Arbroath, Scotland

Credit: Jude Mack

We're asking UK governments for better fishing controls. It looks like we might see some improvements for crab and lobster in England and Wales in the next few years, although the devil will be in the detail.

Frustratingly, there are currently no such commitments by the Scottish Government, despite calls from fishers themselves to do more. The examples from Shetland and Jersey show that better controls bring real benefits to fishers and the environment alike.

We are urgently calling for the Scottish Government to learn from Shetland’s example and do more to control their pot fisheries.

Charlotte Coombes, Good Fish Guide Manager

Environmental impacts

The final piece of the sustainability puzzle is to minimise impacts on the wider environment.

In the UK, we’ve been using pots, also known as creels, to catch shellfish like crab, lobster and langoustine for centuries. It remains an important part of our fishing industry today - in 2020, potting caught 10% of all the seafood fished in the UK, 60,000 tonnes of it!

Potting has a far lower impact than many other types of fishing, such as dredging. It doesn’t tend to bycatch unwanted species, and if it does, they can often be released. Its impact on the seabed is low too.

However, in some parts of the UK we have some incredible - and vulnerable - wildlife. Humpback and minke whales visit places such as the west coast of Scotland for its cool, plankton-rich waters. This is also where a lot of potting takes place. There is a concern that whales could be getting tangled in the ropes that are attached to pots, however, the size of this problem is not yet fully understood.

Fishing boat off Cornwall Sue Ranger

Credit: Sue Ranger

Fortunately, there is hope. A huge piece of work is underway by the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) and others to not only gather the data, but use it to introduce measures to reduce the risk of this occurring.

The creel industry itself has played a central role in this work and continues to do so. The work of the SEA has impressed people so much that it was recently nominated for a sustainability award. Innovations, like ropeless pots, are also being trialled. With efforts like this underway, there is real hope that the solution is not far away.

The future

The future of crab and lobster fishing in the UK is far from certain. We have seen huge efforts and ambition from the fishing industry when it comes to making improvements, but sadly this is not always matched by regulators.

It’s time for governments to step up and protect the future of these species and the traditional potting industry.

Why not try something new? Dive into our delicious sustainable seafood recipes

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