Action required to halt crustacean crises in UK seas

Tuesday 21st March 2023

Conservation charity, Buglife, is raising concern about declining populations of crabs and lobsters, highlighting the lack of attention, protection and stewardship they are given, and calling for improved protection measures and reductions in fishing effort.

Buglife, the only conservation organisation in Europe to champion all invertebrates, warns that gaps in national legislation and monitoring are putting at high risk crab and lobster populations, as well as the fisheries that depend on them. Data from around UK coasts show significant drops in the numbers of Brown/Edible Crabs (Cancer pagurus) and European Lobsters (Homarus gammarus).  Meanwhile the arrival of Alaskan King Crabs (Paralithodes camtschaticus), increases in European/Spiny Spider Crab (Maia squinado) populations, and the recovery of the already-once-crashed European Spiny Lobster or Crawfish (Palinurus elephas) population are resulting in an upsurge in largely unregulated fishing pressure on these animals.

The fishing of these large crustaceans has never been subject to the same level of scrutiny as the management of finned fish populations.  The species mentioned above do not currently have quotas and, unlike finned fish, they are not subject to international agreements or negotiations.

Crustacean fishing legislation is applied at a local level only, so each inshore fishery region has different regulations and by-laws regarding what can be caught and how; most commonly a minimum landing size.  However, the types of restriction vary widely, with some regions having hardly any, and they are complex to navigate, particularly when boats travel through several fishery regions.

Media attention has focussed on “apocalyptic” scenes, as dead or dying marine life washed ashore in vast quantities in late 2021 around the Tees and north-east of England, and the resulting loss of the local shellfisheries, however, fisheries from Jersey to the Outer Hebrides are reporting severe declines in Brown Crab catches per pot/creel. Furthermore, population monitoring and ‘stock’ assessments are not being implemented in many places; Scotland last published Brown Crab assessments eight years ago.

Data presented by the Marine Management Organisation at the Blue Marine ‘Crab and Lobster Symposium’ in November 2022 suggests that UK catches of Brown Crabs have plunged from 35,000 tonnes in 2018 to 15,000 tonnes in 2022, while UK European Lobster catches have been in gradual decline over the last decade.

European Lobster populations have already crashed to almost zero in Norway and there are concerns that Brown Crab fisheries in Northern Europe may soon be closed due to population declines, which could result in an influx of foreign boats into UK waters.  There is already some fishing here by foreign boats, and by UK boats in foreign waters, both of which are currently either poorly regulated or completely unregulated.

European Spiny Lobsters were brought close to eradication in UK waters as a result of widespread capture by divers and netters in the 1960’s and early 70’s; recent years have seen a small resurgence in numbers.  As a result, commercial landings have increased, however, declines in catch rate have been reported in some areas where trapping of this animal has re-commenced.  The European Spiny Lobster is a slow-growing, long-lived animal, vulnerable to exploitation, and twice the governmental nature advisor, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, has recommended that UK governments should protect them by adding them to the Wildlife and Countryside Act list of protected species, the last request was ignored by UK governments.  The lack of legal protection and unregulated fisheries make this animal very vulnerable to unsustainable catch rates, particularly if effort is diverted on to it from declining Lobster and Brown Crab fisheries.

Climate change, non-native species (such as the arrival of the Alaskan King Crab), chemical pollution (including potentially from dredging and insecticides), eutrophication, oxygen depletion, harmful algal blooms, and over-fishing are all likely causes of declines in crab and lobster populations.  While there is need for new science to understand the drivers, in the meantime urgent action must be taken to reduce the pressure on crab and lobster populations, and this must include:

  • the implementation of population monitoring and the routine production of ‘stock’ assessments for all fished large crustaceans;
  • the introduction of regulatory measures to enable the sustainable management of European Spiny Lobster, Spiny Spider Crab and Alaskan King Crabs fisheries;
  • the introduction of additional regulatory measures to reduce fishing pressure on Brown Crabs to give its populations a chance to recover;
  • the creation of ‘no-take zones’, such as the one in Lamlash Bay, to help with population recovery for large crustaceans, including lobsters; and
  • the long over-due addition of the European Spiny Lobster to the Wildlife and Countryside Act protected species list.

Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive of Buglife commented: ‘The Teesside mass-die off event has drawn acute attention to UK shellfisheries, but the bigger picture is just as concerning.  Populations of crabs and lobsters are very vulnerable and are all in decline or under threat, action is required now to reduce fishing pressure. Last year the UK Government recognised crabs and lobsters as sentient beings, putting these animals on a par with finned fish, but efforts to protect their populations fall far behind and unless this is levelled-up we can expect crab and lobster population crashes, with resulting big impacts on ecosystem health and fisheries’.

CORRECTION:  After initial reporting by the Guardian the Alaskan King Crabs were reidentified as the native deep water species, the Northern Stone Crab (Lithodes maja). One less problem for our native decapods, although concerns about risks of invasive species becoming established are very real, including in particular American Lobsters (Homarus americanus)

Additional Useful Information:

Image Credit: European Lobster (Homarus gammarus) © Natural England / Adele Morgan (Flickr, CC)

Listen to Buglife CEO, Matt Shardlow, talking on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today as part of their week focusing on shellfish (aired on Wednesday 22 March 2023 and available to listen, or listen again for one month)