Situated on the small island of Lamb Holm, the hatchery has an ideal coastal location that can ensure a steady supply of clean seawater is always available. The site itself has a history of aquaculture having once being used for salmon farming (from which the old quarry still remains and today is used as lobster ponds) and briefly for halibut farming trials.
The first attempt at rearing juvenile lobsters on the site came about in 1995, trailing the feasibility of rearing larvae using only the bare necessities by providing an essential constant clean water flow and sufficient food. This simple approach reared around 300 juvenile lobsters which were then returned into the wild. This initial return may have been small but through being achieved with such an unsophisticated system showed only promise to further investigate its potential.
Funding through Orkney Islands Council and Orkney Fisheries Association allowed the hatchery to develop and expand further with the numbers of juveniles being released increasing ten fold and through having to operate on a shoe string budget considerable work was done over the years to further develop cost efficient rearing techniques.
The hatchery has since moved on from its small beginnings and being rebuilt in 2002 now contains three separate rooms for housing broodstock, larval rearing and on-growing of individuals and through its innovative design has become the most successful lobster hatchery in Europe.
The lobster fishery around Orkney remains a significant source of employment and income for the local community and economy with landings into Orkney ports valued at £1,308,000 in 2012 (1). It is the hatchery’s intent through its juvenile lobster restocking programme to contribute to its ongoing prosperity for future generations.
The hatchery is now run on an independent footing funded by the industry through local merchants contributing a levy for every lobster sold through Orkney, a unique situation that shows the level of recognition to the benefits of the hatchery to the local fishing community.
Through the fishermen’s goodwill and the determination of those involved the hatchery remains in operation today and continues to release over 60,000 juveniles around Orkney each season.
In the wild the female carries the eggs for around 9 months before the eggs are ready to hatch and larvae released into the water column. Unfortunately, once hatched the odds are stacked against survival through predation and sometimes unfavourable environmental conditions. It has been previously estimated only 1 out of 20,000 eggs may make it to adult size. The hatchery aims to give nature a helping hand in ensuring there will be a sustainable lobster fishery around Orkney for years to come.
The shellfish merchant O-Fish Shell also operates on the site at Lambsholm, which is extremely useful in obtaining a supply of quality broodstock for the hatchery ensuring best survival of larvae in its early stages and maximising the hatchery’s production.
Staff will check the condition of “berried” females brought in starting in late April early May as this is around the time when eggs start nearing the latter stages of development and females would naturally begin to release their eggs into the water column. On inspection the females should show no signs of poor health and eggs should be blue/green in colour (any brick red in colour are dead).
The selected females are kept in holding tanks with a constant flow of seawater, at this stage it’s crucial that there is little stress to the lobster and the water kept clean for the greatest chance of survival of the eggs. The hatching period can last anywhere from 3 to 14 days depending on the number of eggs the lobster has produced.
The prelarvae take less than a minute to emerge from the egg and instantly undergo a moult resulting in the first larval stage known as Stage 1. In this early stage of the life cycle you would have to have a keen imagination to recognise the larvae as young lobsters! (See picture below). At this size they cannot control their movement as their swimming appendages have not yet developed but do show phototactic behaviour (being drawn to light) rising to the surface where they can then be collected and transferred to the larvae rearing room.
The larvae room consists of numerous conical’s where the seawater is heated (usually around 21°C) and in constant circulation. Air stones are used to keep oxygen levels high but most importantly to keep the larvae in suspension so they don’t have the opportunity to attack one another; young lobsters are extremely cannibalistic and think nothing of making a meal of their neighbours! The growth rate of the juveniles is dependant on temperature so the water circulating through the conical’s is kept much warmer than sea temperature to allow optimal use of valuable space and time and maximise survival rates.
The larvae remain here until they reach Stage 4 where they are then moved into the out growing room. The lobsters are then placed in individual compartments in holding trays where they remain until released. The water temperature in this room is much cooler to allow the lobsters to become acclimatised to natural sea temperatures and minimise the shock when released.
Having now reached a stage where they will be able to fend for themselves the juveniles await release where their real battle will begin in the open sea but through life beginning at the hatchery we can be sure they have gotten off to the best start possible.