Cod fishermen find hope in langoustine as Scotland's biggest catch

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They are mud-lovers with vicious claws which the Spanish like to fry alive in oil and garlic. If Scottish fishermen get their way, they could also prove to be the salvation of an industry in crisis.

They are mud-lovers with vicious claws which the Spanish like to fry alive in oil and garlic. If Scottish fishermen get their way, they could also prove to be the salvation of an industry in crisis.

Nephrops norvegicus – otherwise known as the Dublin Bay prawn or langoustine – is undergoing an unprecedented population boom in waters off the Scottish coast. As a result, fishermen facing the closure of once-lucrative cod grounds in the North Sea and north Atlantic are increasingly turning their attentions to these creatures, once considered little more than an aquatic nuisance.

The prawns, usually around 20cm long, have moved from regularly being thrown back into the sea 40 years ago to becoming the most valuable "cash crop" of the Scottish fleet – the largest in Britain.

Last year, some 28,300 tonnes of nephrops (as they are known in the trade) were landed by Scottish vessels in an industry now worth £68m a year to the UK – more than twice the value of the cod catch.

As the popularity of langoustine on the continent, in particular Spain and France, has ballooned, growth in demand for the seafood, most of it now exported to these two countries, has been extraordinary. The value of the UK industry has grown from £27m in 1985 to £42m in 1990 and £60m in 1997.

The best prices, paid by continental restaurateurs who offer about £110 per kilo, are for live specimens sent by air from Scotland. These are cocooned in plastic tubes until they hit a hot sauté pan.

But Scottish fishermen's leaders are now pressing for a more rapid expansion of the trade by claiming that the decline of cod has led to an explosion in the population of the langoustine. They are calling for the annual quotas agreed by the European Union to be doubled to allow boats which rely on dwindling stocks of white fish to switch over to trawling for the mini-lobsters.

Hamish Morrison, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF), said: "All our scientific advice points to a huge expansion in nephrop numbers over the last five years. At a time when we are facing closure of entire fisheries, nephrops offer a unique opportunity to help sustain the economy of our fishing ports.

"The problem is that the European system is not set up to allow sharp increases in the catch over a short period. Yet we have an abundance of a much sought-after species."

A survey last month by the Association of EU Fishing Organisations found that 46 per cent of trawler skippers had reported an increase in their nephrop catch in the past year. In the key fishing ground of the North Sea, the rise was 13 per cent. The richest concentration is Fladen Ground, off the fishing port of Fraserburgh on the Scottish east coast.

One of the main reasons for the friskiness of the langoustine – known in Britain as scampi – is the disappearance of most of its main predators. Chris Ross, an exporter of live nephrops who is based on the Isle of Harris, said: "Bottom-living fish, like cod, monkfish and hake, eat the spawn of the prawns. And now they only have one predator left – man."

Indeed, researchers in Canada believe the disappearance of the cod has led to a reversal in the marine feeding chain. They found that newly abundant nephrop larvae feed on tiny cod hatchlings.

The SFF claims that the strange habits of the nephrops, which have a tendency to eat each other in times of famine, mean it can be fished in an ecologically-sound manner. Naturally cautious, the females spend most of their time in mud burrows on the sea floor and emerge only to feed and look for a mate. As a result, most of the animals caught by fishermen are male while pregnant females remain safe.

But the idea of allowing industrial cod trawlers to convert to nephrop fishing, which requires smaller gauge nets, does not have universal appeal among those who currently make their living from them. Roy McGregor, 51, who runs a fleet of five trawlers from Ullapool, has been making daily trips to fish langoustine for 34 years. He fears a rapid expansion will damage the industry.

"These larger boats will flood the market and cause prices to fall below sustainable levels. The industry is a fragile one," he said. "The larger boats disturb the bottom layer of the sea bed far more than smaller ones like ours. We have to conserve these stocks, not exploit them."