Expert topic: Lobster
by Daniel Jackson, Production Editor, International Aquafeed
The elusive cultured lobster
So pronounced are the paralells between human and lobster, the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson dedicates a chapter to the crustacean in his bestselling self-help book, 12 Rules for Life. We can learn a lot about ourselves from the humble lobster, he says, and I'm inclined to think he's right.
The ability to co-operate effectively in large numbers is what puts us at the top of the food chain, and co-operation is essential if we are to obtain an elusive prize – the cultured lobster.
The challenges the species presents to the aquaculture industry are varied and will require input from all its constituent parts. From innovations in the manufacture of durable netting to research in feed formulation. Efforts to pull these various strands together are currently underway, but there is still much to learn and several obstacles to overcome.
For example, it is not even known at present what juvenile European lobsters eat (though in captivity the answer seems to be 'pretty much anything that drifts by').
One thing that's not in any doubt is the lobster's value as a commodity. Fishing for them is a hugely profitable enterprise, and one that is becoming more so every year. For a species so synonymous with seafood, relatively few are caught (just 3300 tonnes in the UK in 2016).But the crustacean punches above its weight.
It accounts for just over 0.5 percent of the total British seafood catch, but over five percent of the profits. If catching them is so lucrative, might growing them be even more so?
The overwhelming majority of lobsters are currently caught in the wild. Farming them is technically challenging, and on a large scale not yet commercially viable. But for those who work out how to do itsuccessfully there is a rich seam waiting to be plundered.
With disposable incoming increasing worldwide, consumer demand for luxury food items is rising. This is especially true in China – where more seafood is consumed than anywhere else on earth, both as a total and per head of population. In 2017, China imported more than 17.8 million pounds of lobster from USA at a cost of US $142.4 million, up from $108.3 million in the previous year. Last month the international sandwich chain Pret started selling a lobster roll at the premium price point of £5.99.
Up until now lobster aquaculture has largely consisted of programs that aim to increase population numbers. This is done by hatching and rearing lobster larvae that are then introduced back into the natural habitat, and hopefully caught again at a later date. This is both expensive and labour intensive – the young lobsters need to be isolated to avoid cannibalism.
Lobster Grower 2 is a research project that aims to address the gaps in technology, skill and knowledge that currently prevent industrial scale lobster farming from becoming a reality. The collaboration between industry and academiais also exploring the commercial viability ofsuch an enterprise. One advantage of the system they are testing - a sea-based container culture – is its low carbon footprint.
Theirinvestigation might be starting at just the right moment. A recent report by the University of Maine suggests that climate change could be particularly detrimental to wild lobster populations.
Though they're tough on the outside (with stomachs on a par with industrial rubber in terms of strength) and resilient against ocean acidification, their reproductive cycle is easily upset byslight changes in temperature. The researchers found that half as many lobster larvae survived to stage IV of development (15 days old) when reared in water 3°C warmer than current ocean temperatures.
The long-term future of lobster as a commodity could therefore depend on our ability to farm them. Currently it's a cottage industry. But then, once upon a time, that was also true of shrimp. Following successful trials in northern Vietnam in 1970 it was transformed from a small, traditional practice on the coasts of Southeast Asia into a global industry worth over $9 billion to the world economy.
This transformation was achieved in just fifteen years (production was considered intensive by 1985). If current efforts are successful lobster farming could be the next big aquaculture success story, providing a boon to the coastal communities that could be most affected by climate change.