Claws for thought: The National Lobster Hatchery, Padstow

Date Posted: 2 Jul 2024

Kirstie Newton

Did you know a female lobster can carry in the region of 20,000 eggs under her abdomen – only one of which will survive in the wild? Or that lobsters can taste through their feet?

These fascinating facts, and plenty more besides, can be found at the National Lobster Hatchery on Padstow’s South Quay. You can even see pregnant “berried hens” for yourself in the maternity ward, although it might take you a while to count her eggs, so perhaps take their word for it.

With its pretty harbour, stunning coastal views (on foot and by bike) and toothsome dining offer, Padstow is a real honeypot. But the hatchery, right next to one of the principal car parks, is a small but very important resource that will keep you busy for an hour or two before you even get to the main draw.

Since its creation in 2000, it has grown into a centre for excellence in lobster science, publishing research papers and presenting its work on the world stage. It also welcomes more than 40,000 visitors pass through its education hub each year, teaching them about about the importance of lobsters to the local economy, the food chain and the biosphere.

The best thing is that simply by visiting, you become a part of that story. “Everything we make from the visitor side of things is ploughed back in to fund our conservation project,” says chief operating officer Nicola O’Donnell. “It’s even more important in these days of rising costs.”

Worth over £40m each year, the European lobster is the most valuable fish caught in the UK and part of a major export industry. Coastal communities depend upon it to create jobs and keep harbours like Padstow profitable.

But that very value leaves the lobster susceptible to overfishing, to the point of catastrophic stock collapse in the case of Scandinavian and Mediterranean stocks. This is only likely to get worse, given that demand for seafood is expected to increase as global population heads towards 9 billion. The risk to marine life and global food security is there for all to see.

The good news is that through its pioneering work, the National Lobster Hatchery can boost a baby lobster’s chances of survival one thousandfold. How? By delaying its release into the wild until it has passed through its first two life stages, and is big enough to protect itself from predators by burrowing down into the sea bed.

From April onwards, 4,000 tiny lobster babies hatch daily, each smaller than a grain of rice. Every morning, they are collected by staff and put into larval cones to swirl around, as they would on the surface of the sea.

Releases happen all year round, most frequently between April and August, using three methods: by boat, especially with local fishermen; with the help of dive schools, and on the shore at low tide. Members of the public are welcome to attend, particular for shore releases (look out for news of these on social media), and can even participate by decanting baby lobsters carefully into rockpools.

“We’ve had 150 people at one of these events – it appeals to anyone aged three to 73,” says Nicola. Fact: the hatchery was named Best Family Attraction in Cornwall in the 2024 Muddy Stilettos Awards.

Figures go up and down depending on water quality and how many pregnant mums come in, but the number of baby lobsters returned to the ocean can be anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 annually.

Lobster is Cornwall’s second highest volume fishery with reported landings of 168.4 tonnes, worth £1.52 million annually. Small wonder the industry is on board; the hatchery works with 19 inshore fishermen who are licensed to land berried hens with the express intention of delivering them to the site.

Admission gives you a year-long pass so you can keep popping back. The hatchery is open daily year-round, bar a few weeks in January when it closes for maintenance. To get the most out of your experience, chat to the team. “Nothing brings this alive more than asking a question,” says Nicola, adding: “Malcolm on Mondays is especially enthusiastic and will tell you everything you need to know.”

Look out for special events: this summer, Falmouth Marine School’s collection of artefacts will spend its holidays in Padstow, meaning you can get up close and personal with weird and wonderful sealife, with ocean-themed activities and exclusive underwater footage from The Open Ocean Group.

And with next year being a silver jubilee, it’s highly likely the hatchery will be pushing the boat out to celebrate. Watch this space!

Open daily 10am to 4pm. Dogs welcome.

The National Lobster Hatchery, South Quay, Padstow, PL28 8BL

Tel: 01841 533877

FB & Insta @padstowlobster, 10k followers


Read more from the blog…