Why Bridlington is the lobster capital of Europe

Think of Yorkshire's east coast and you might think of seaside resorts like Scarborough, or fishing boats at Whitby. Or maybe wind farms off Spurn Point. What you probably won't think of is lobsters in Bridlington '“ but you should.

A lobster bound for foreign shores at Baron Shellfish, the only Bridlington-based wholesaler to export. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

That’s because Bridlington is the lobster capital of Europe, landing over 420 tonnes in 2014 – more than anywhere else on the entire continent.

What’s more, lobsters commanded the highest average price of all species landed by the UK fleet in 2014, at £9.89 per kilogram, according to the Government’s Marine Management Organisation. They accounted for only two per cent of the weight of shellfish landings, but 12 per cent of the value. Which is why Bridlington, which lands almost no actual fish, is Yorkshire’s most lucrative fishing port. The shellfish it lands is worth £7.2m – more than all the fish and shellfish landed at Grimsby and Whitby combined – £4m of which is accounted for by lobster.

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Much of this goes abroad; the French, in particular, are big fans. Mick Baron, founder and director of Baron Shellfish, the only Bridlington-based wholesaler to export, turns over between £1m and £1.5m a year, most of it in exports.

“I’m selling quite a lot at home, but not as much as I am to foreign markets,” says Mr Baron, who has been in the business for over 40 years. “Our major market is Spain. We’ve a good market in Italy and a reasonable market in Belgium. Out of more than 200 boxes a week, we send 120 boxes of 15kg to Spain.

“French companies come here in trucks with tanks called viviers. They go all along the coast filling up with lobsters and have capacity to take 10 tonnes back to France at a time.

“We do it differently: we pack them at Bridlington and send them out live in boxes.”

It is this reliance on exports that split opinion among members of Bridlington’s shellfish industry in the run-up to the EU referendum.

While most of the UK’s fishermen were solidly behind the Leave campaign, hoping that Brexit would enable them to ditch the much-disliked Common Fisheries Policy and give them back sole control of Britain’s waters, in Bridlington there was a recognition that leaving the EU could be bad for exports.

Mick Baron is fairly ambivalent. “I was an ‘In’ man because I was worried about what regulations the French might bring in if we left,” he says.

“But I don’t think there’ll be tariffs introduced. Norway have never been a member of the EU, and they have special dispensation, with no tariffs, so I don’t see us having any difficulty. They’ll still want our lobsters!”

Whatever the merits of Brexit, the UK will need a new fisheries policy to replace the common European one.

Mike Cohen is chief executive of the Holderness Fishing Industry Group (HFIG) and also, as of this month, chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

“The whole issue was complicated for this fishery,” he says. “We don’t fish outside UK waters, and foreign vessels don’t fish here, but we do sell 85 per cent of our shellfish to overseas markets, mostly within Europe, so we want a new policy that won’t harm that.”

It’s early days, but Mr Cohen senses grounds for optimism. The new government is looking at introducing changes to the national management of shellfish, and he says they indicate an increased willingness to work with fishermen.

“The proposed changes appear to take account of the needs of the fishing industry and take advantage of the insights and hard data that fishermen can provide. This will hopefully lead to an approach to managing stocks and fisheries that is based far more on comprehensive and relevant evidence than has been the case hitherto.

“Crucially, there seems to be a real willingness to support decision-making on a local level – rather than in a centralised, top-down style – allowing for an approach that is far more responsive to the ecological and economic realities in particular locations.

“It really is a very encouraging sign that we could be about to see management of an important natural resource in a way that focuses on how things are and how they work in the real world and not according to abstract targets – as has too often been the case in the past.”

As a marine biologist, Mr Cohen’s opinions are backed by hard data, much of it accumulated by his team on board the Huntress, the HFIG’s research vessel. “We do a lot of stock assessment work, working like a fishing boat, but instead of keeping the lobster we measure it, look at its condition, look at male-to-female ratios, see how many are carrying eggs, and assess how big that year’s year-class is, which gives an indication of whether too many adults may have been caught in previous years.

“Fishermen are scientists in many ways. They don’t just chuck their pots in the water; they’re always asking questions: what happens if I change the amount of bait I put in the pot; or the way we set the pots?

“It was the fishermen around here who came up with the idea of having a research boat. They set the research questions and we go out and try to find the answers.

“At the moment our assessment of the stocks says they are strong. In the middle to longer term, prospects will depend on a reappraisal of shellfish policy.”

If a favourable deal can be negotiated post-Brexit, French diners should still be able to feast on east coast crustaceans for years to come without shelling out too many euros – and the lobstermen of Bridlington should be able to take full advantage of their Europe-beating status.

And if the new regime succeeds, there’ll be benefits far beyond the bottom line. “There’s a real opportunity to assure the environmental sustainability of the industry across the country,” says Mike Cohen.

“Nobody’s getting rich from potting for lobster, but nobody’s getting poor either, and a lot of the boats are owner-operated. That connection makes the industry very much part of the community – it’s a way of life – so it’s very important to keep it healthy. And the money is not just earned here, it’s spent here too.”