Lobster love: Why the National Lobster Hatchery is one of a kind

Lobsters. Boil them. Grill them. Cover them in butter. Have you ever thought about where they’ve come from and what type you’re eating? The National Lobster Hatchery in Cornwall works with restaurants like Sankeys in Tunbridge Wells to ‘buy one, set one free’. But why all the fuss over the snappy, clacky creatures?

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“Lobsters are incredibly important ecologically,” says Dom Boothroyd, General Manager at the National Lobster Hatchery. “They’re scavengers, so they keep dead and dying animals at bay and they keep the local eco-system in balance. For example, in North America in instances where lobsters have been locally overfished, kelp beds have suffered die back when urchin populations have grown unchecked. In a balanced system the lobsters keep urchin populations under control and the kelp is free to grow.”

While the UK’s lobster stocks aren’t depleted, the species is a vulnerable one thanks to habitat availability and high and sustained fishing pressure. And it’s not just in the sea that lobsters play an important role. Lobster fisheries are worth eight million a year to the Cornish economy alone.

“We’ve got 50 coastal communities in Cornwall and nearly all of them are involved in lobster fishing,” says Boothroyd. “The industry provides jobs and wealth in these communities. It’s dominated by micro-businesses so the money stays local and it’s vital as other than tourism there really isn’t much else.

The National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow Cornwall is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. As well as ‘giving Mother Nature a helping hand’ and rearing and replacing young lobsters back into the sea, it undergoes research into ‘all things lobster’ and has a centre where visitors can learn more about how lobsters develop and even adopt one.

“They’re an interesting species,” says Boothroyd. “They’re beautiful and fascinating in their behaviour. They have a weird hierarchy – the males will arm wrestle and urinate in each others’ faces.”

Since 1998 the National Lobster Hatchery has released over 200,000 lobsters into the wild. It has a special dispensation to borrow pregnant female lobsters (berried hens) from fishermen and restaurants nearby to help with the stocking programme. The hatchery has room for over 4,000 juveniles at a time to grow for three months, past their most vulnerable, then it releases them into the sea.

It’s currently working on research including looking at their gut microbes, rearing them for longer and releasing large amounts of tagged lobsters out at sea, something no one has done in this way before.

Buy one, set one free

13 restaurants in the UK work with the National Lobster Hatchery to ‘buy one set one free’ so that when a diner buys a lobster, they donate a small amount to pay for the rearing and releasing of another lobster – replacing the one they’ve just enjoyed. Sankeys was the first restaurant to do this and since 2009 it has replaced more than 7,000 lobsters.

“The National Lobster Hatchery reckon it costs £3.50 to adopt a lobster, so we split that with our customers. We ask them to donate half and we match it” explains owner Matthew Sankey. “We’re known for our lobsters and it encourages people to ask questions and engage with the issue.”

Sankey wanted to be involved the moment he poked his head round the door of the visitor centre nearly ten years ago.

“It was love at first sight,” he explains. “I couldn’t believe there was such a thing and that people were doing such work to help influence the fishery. I’ve always been obsessed with sustainability and instigated sustainably sourced seafood when I took over the restaurant from my father.”

Sankey was so insistent on finding the best sustainable fish for his restaurant he set up his own fishmongers with an award-winning fishmonger, which from this month will also operate online.

“I wasn’t happy with the quality I was getting from suppliers so another chance meeting in Billingsgate lead me to open our own fishmongers. We get fish from all over the UK from Brighton to Scotland.”

How to choose the best lobster

“Check how the menu has been worded,” warns Sankey. “There are two types of lobster that end up on menus, the Canadian lobster and our own ‘native lobster’ but double check with the staff that they’re using ‘native’ to mean British as Canadian ones are often snuck in instead.”

It’s easy to tell if you’ve been served up a Canadian instead of a native snapper. When the lobster’s been cooked and turned red, native lobsters have white spots, Canadian have black. Canadian lobsters too are an invasive species, much like the grey squirrel and pose a threat to native populations.

“A recent trend has been for people to buy a lobster from the fishmonger and release it back into the sea,” says Sankey. “But they don’t understand the harm they could be doing – if it’s a Canadian lobster it will kill off the native ones.”

While native lobster are available all year round, they tend to be cheaper in summer because it’s easier for the fishermen to get out there and fish and in the winter lobsters don’t scavenge as much so are harder to catch.

And his favourite way to eat them? 

“Boiled and grilled with plenty of garlic butter.”