Whilst holidaying earlier this month in Argyll, my wife and I stopped for lunch at a hotel in the picturesque 18th Century model village of Inverary which lies on the western shore of Scotland's longest sea loch, Loch Fyne. In the hotel's beer garden - the weather being glorious - we all too quickly settled on our choices and ordered, only to see the table opposite being served with a large plate of crustaceans. "Nephrops!" I remarked to my wife, "I thought they were nearly all exported."
Until recently, my surprise would have been well founded because the only part of the Dublin Bay prawn/langoustine that was found on a British menu was the tail meat in the dish "Scampi", an Italian recipe popularised by Young's Seafoods in the 60s and 70s. The whole Nephrops Norvegicus, to give this lovely shellfish its proper name, is naturally pale orange in colour and grows to seven or eight inches in length including the tail and claws. Larger, and therefore older and now much scarcer specimens can be 10 - 12 inches.
Nephrops may be bought canned in parts of Europe but, those not being used for scampi or bisques, are usually iced and shipped as fresh as possible for the tables of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. The biggest and best normally caught in creels are often flown live to be served in the best restaurants.
The value of this reasonably abundant close relative of the lobster (it's not a prawn) is roughly £50 million per year landed by Scottish fishing vessels. In 2011 however, there was a decrease by 16 per cent of Nephrops landed and an increase in price of 30 per cent resulting in a record value of £84 million, just over half the value of all shellfish species landed in Scotland.
The vast majority of Nephrops are trawl caught. Such catches are large but are generally only suitable for processing into scampi and other products. Popular with inshore West Coast fisheries in Scottish waters is the use of baited traps or creels. This method gives a much smaller catch, only some eight per cent of the Scottish landed total in 2011, but greatly enhanced quality and so represents the high value end of the market, worth £14 million.
The UK is allocated the majority of North Sea and Scottish West Coast catches. This equates normally to some 35,000 tonnes of a total world catch estimated at 80,000 tonnes by the Seafish: Responsible Sourcing Guide in 2010 but reduced to just 70,000 tonnes by the same source in July 2011 so that although there is no cause for immediate concern in a fishery that stretches between Iceland and Morocco and with areas in the Mediterranean, there is no room for complacency. In 2011, Scottish landings were just under 21,000 tonnes by trawl and nearly 1,700 tonnes by creel.
The Seafish:Responsible Sourcing Guide is based in Grimsby and recommends a harvest no greater than 12 per cent with 88 per cent of the species biomass remaining in the sea and a Maximum Sustainable Yield of roughly 13 per cent. On this basis the UK allocated fisheries for Nephrops could proceed at the catch levels seen over the past few years without any problem.
News for consumers in Spain and Portugal however (very important export markets for UK Nephrops) was rather bleak. The seven sea areas these two countries share were advised to harvest only some 300 tonnes for 2011-2012, mainly in the Gulf of Cadiz. Seafish's Report noted: "...stocks have suffered severe recruitment failure and population decline..."
All of this should be a boost for British Nephrops exports but unfortunately, this is not the case and looking at that main export destination list the reason is only too obvious with all the countries in or very near recession. Considering 80 per cent of the Scottish Nephrops is exported to the European Union (ditto for Scallops, Crab and Lobster) there is particular concern being expressed in the industry on the orders, or lack of, from Spain and France.
On 17 August 2012 BBC News, Highlands & Islands, reported that the Mallaig and North West Fishermen's Association has secured a grant from the European Fisheries Fund "...to help efforts to promote the produce... in order to boost UK consumption to stabilise sales."
Nephrops in a basket??