The tiny lobsters are safe from predators – including each other – as they eddy in large plastic tanks, swirling with artificial currents. In a few weeks’ time, as part of a conservation project, they will leave their small shed in the North Yorkshire port of Whitby for the open sea.
Whitby is Europe’s third-largest lobster port. About 100,000 lobsters are landed there each year, providing jobs for 150 people.
Joe Redfern, who runs the Whitby Lobster Hatchery, hopes to release the same number each year from his tanks. “We want to make sure that the marine environment is protected and the lobster populations are conserved for the future,” the 31-year-old biology graduate says.
Lobster pots are piled high on the port’s quayside, but the crustaceans were once part of a much bigger fishing industry in Whitby. The town’s traditional catch of whitefish has collapsed, a result of overfishing and the climate crisis. Fishers also blame EU quotas, before Britain quit the bloc.
In the 1990s, there were about 30 big fishing boats in Whitby, but by 2005, there was only one, according to Redfern, who has been a fisher himself. Whitefish such as cod and haddock have migrated north to colder waters. Some of the Whitby boats moved with them, relocating to the Scottish ports of Peterhead and Aberdeen. “The guys that didn’t want to move, they had to migrate into shellfish,” says Jonathan Parkin, a 43-year-old fisher.
A new disaster struck the Whitby fishing industry from late 2021. Lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans began dying off in huge numbers. The cause remains a mystery. Some locals suspect a government project to dredge for a new post-Brexit freeport in the Teesside region, to the north of Whitby. They wonder if the dredging has stirred up chemical pollutants in the seabed – a legacy of Teesside’s past as a centre of heavy industry. However, a government-commissioned study by independent experts said in January that it was “as likely as not that a pathogen new to UK waters” was the cause.
Plans for the hatchery began before the mass die-off. But Redfern said it could help “bring a bit of hope back into the communities” and show that “something can be done to start to rebuild”.
The project involves harvesting female lobsters, each carrying thousands of eggs, from the North Sea so that they can hatch safely. In the open sea, the survival rate for lobster larvae is one in 20,000, or 0.005%. By allowing them to grow in a protected environment, Redfern hopes to increase that to 20 or 30%.
As they feed and develop in their hatchery tanks, the larvae are separated when they reach the stage at which, in the wild, they are liable to eat each other. After two to three months, they are ready for the sea. “Obviously, when we release them, they won’t all survive, but what we’ve done is protect them over the larval stage, which is their most vulnerable period,” says Redfern.
The project raised more than £100,000 to get off the ground, from crowdfunding and corporate sponsorship. Individual donors can sponsor a lobster and follow it until it is introduced into the sea. The idea came from the Whitby fishing community, drawing inspiration from a similar project in Cornwall. “It’s massively, massively important,” says Parkin, who is involved in the scheme. “We’re releasing future generations of lobsters for future generations of fishermen.”