SUCCESS STORY: Highland fishermen catch 'green' prawns

Posted: 15 April 2003

Author: Jamie Grant

The fishermen of Scotland's Loch Torridon have found the right balance between conservation and the need to make a decent living, ensuring that restaurants throughout Europe will have a continued supply of their very tasty prawns. Jamie Grant reports.

My first encounter with Loch Torridon's prawns was in Galicia, Spain. I was presented with a plate of them in a seaside café, smothered with garlic butter and chili. I say prawns, but they looked nothing like the cocktail variety. Instead they resembled small lobsters, with long claws and a divine flavour of bright ocean and clean deep water.

Loch Torridon prawns (Nephrops norvegicus). © WWF-Canon/Edward ParkerI took the memory of this local delicacy back home with me to Scotland, only to discover that these so-called prawns actually came from Scotland. Not only that, but they came from a sustainable fishery, a novel concept in a country that has seen its fish stocks - together with the fortune of its fishermen - plummet in recent years.

Sustainable fishing

Curious to see where my lunch in Spain came from, I made the trip up to Torridon in the far north west of Scotland to meet the highland fishermen who catch 'green' prawns.

The Torridon peninsular is stunningly beautiful. The coast is shaped by Loch Torridon, a wide arm of the sea surrounded by mountains dotted with ancient Caledonian forest and running straight into the water. The world of cities and traffic is a long way away up here. Some homes are so remote that even the quality of the picture on TV can depend on the tides.

Loch Torridon, west coast of Scotland© WWF-Cannon/Edward ParkerAt a harbour near the small village of Shieldaig, I met the two men who are the driving force behind Torridon's sustainable prawn fishery. Born and bred in the area, Kenny Livingston and John MacGregor saw the effects of overfishing first hand as young men. In the 1980s, the areas' herring and whitefish stocks, the mainstay of the local economy, collapsed from over exploitation.

With herring more or less gone from inshore waters, local fishermen like John and Kenny turned to prawn fishing. Caught using baited creels, a type of trap covered in netting, the prawns command a high price in luxury foreign markets and, increasingly, domestic markets as well.

The prawns are now the most commercially valuable shellfish species in the UK, making the fisheries extremely important for Scotland. Strictly speaking they aren't prawns, but a kind of small lobster, Nephrops norvegicus. But as no one would choose pan-fried Nephrops from a seafood menu, they are variously called langoustine, Norway lobster, or Dublin Bay prawns. Locally, they are simply known as prawns.

Fishing zones

Local fishermen are not the only people interested in catching the prawns, however. In 1984, a new fishing act opened the prawn fishery to trawler boats, most of which are not locally owned and which can catch thousands of prawns in their long nets. The new regulation brought the creel fishermen and trawlers into direct competition, and even conflict.

To prevent the prawns going the same way as the herring and whitefish, in the mid 1990s John and Kenny started a campaign to establish control over the management of fishing in Loch Torridon and - crucially - to restrict fishing effort by the trawlers.

It was a hard struggle, but finally in 2001, they got the breakthrough they had barely believed possible. The Scottish Executive granted management of the fishery to the Torridon community under a plan that set up three defined fishing areas: a trawl only area, a mixed fishery, and a creel only zone.

"We pushed our case from the lowest to highest political level," said John. "In the end we got support form the then fisheries minister Rhona Brankin, for which we are eternally grateful."

'Environmental Standard' award

John and Kenny, together with other local creel fishermen, have worked tirelessly to secure a long-term future for the prawn fishery and the local community. In 1996 they formed themselves into a loose co-operative called Sheildaig Export Limited. By collectively supplying live prawns, researching markets, controlling handling, and arranging airfreight to European markets, the company has since added value to the landings. This has helped give them greater price stability and relatively secure markets.

And with help from WWF, the co-operative also recently installed escape hatches in their creels. These allow juvenile prawns to evade capture, further ensuring the long-term sustainability of the fisheries.

These efforts were rewarded in January this year, when the prawn fishermen of Shieldaig and Torridon received the Marine Stewardship Council's (MSC) 'environmental standard' for working to protect the prawn stocks they depend on for their living. The fishermen see this award, which is only the seventh given in the world, as an essential tool for keeping hold over the management of their inshore fisheries.

John and Kenny took me out in John's brand new boat to the creel only zone, an area covering some 40km2 of Loch Torridon's open water. The agreement to fish in different areas was made with the trawler fishermen, and so far the boundaries have been respected. Although he would like to see more formal enforcement measures put in place, Kenny said that in such a small community the collective disapproval if anyone were seen breaking the rules is a very effective deterrent.

Managing fish stocks

The two fishermen worked with practised ease, one positioning the boat while the other winched the long line of creels out of the deep water. Flashing in the bright sun, the pots were hauled aboard, where they were quickly emptied of prawns, re-baited with a fish head, and stacked along the boat's bow. The crew worked fast - on a calm day like the day we were out there is no hurry, but often it's necessary to work against time, racing to reset the creels before the next storm sweeps in. Within an hour of leaving the harbour several crates were filled with prawns, destined for restaurants in France, Spain, London, and the local Applecross Inn.

John proudly showed off the new escape hatches, now fitted in some 14,000 creels. He is confident that the hatches, together with other conservation measures agreed with the Marine Stewardship Council such as returning female prawns with eggs, will make all the difference. "I think that these stocks will last now for generations," he said.

Erica Mason, the MSC Assessor of Fisheries, is convinced that this example has the potential to be repeated by inshore fighting communities up and down the country. "This fishery is working hard to make itself totally sustainable. I believe that it could act as a blueprint for the rest of Scotland," she said.

Back on dry land, we met up that evening in the Applecross Inn to put the world to rights over a few prawns and beers. Given the general inertia of most governments to move towards sustainable fisheries, I was impressed by how aware the fishermen are of the need to manage stocks, even if it means taking less from the sea in the short term. John summed it up in a few words: "We're investing in the community, we're investing in the future."

Jamie Grant is Press Officer at WWF Scotland.

Related links:

WWF's work on sustainable fisheries

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)