Could 'feelings' ruling on crabs and lobsters impact a Norfolk tradition?

Cromer Crab. Photo: Antony Kelly

Cromer Crab. Photo: Antony Kelly - Credit: © ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHIC

The Cromer crab is a Norfolk staple - but does it have feelings?

According to a report by the London School of Economics (LSE), there is strong scientific evidence to suggest it does, and that it should be treated more humanely.

And this has led to concerns being raised about the potential long-term impact on Norfolk's crab and lobster industry.

The government’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, currently passing through parliament, is set to recognise crabs, lobsters and octopuses as 'sentient beings'. 

This means they will be considered capable of experiencing such feelings as pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort and excitement.

The government has said the recognition will not affect current industry practices such as fishing, and that there will be no direct impact on the restaurant industry.

The move is instead “designed to ensure animal welfare is well considered in future decision-making”, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

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But Cromer crab fisherman John Lee said he feared the new classification could end up leading to further regulations or restrictions on his industry.

Mary Kemp making crab dishes with Elliott Bloomfield, chef at The Rocket House Cafe, Cromer and crab

Cromer crab fisherman John Lee - Credit: Archant

The LSE experts had been commissioned by the government to investigate the evidence of sentience among the animals.

But the report goes further than simply recommending that their sentience be recognised - and makes several as yet unadopted measures, such as banning the less humane methods of killing. 

Crabs should not have to endure cruel practices like de-clawing, the report recommends, and nor should they ever be sold to non-expert handlers for onward sale. 

When it comes to slaughtering the creatures, the report suggests "double-spiking" crabs and "whole-body splitting" lobsters, or using electrocution to ensure as quick a death as possible.

Fisherman Mr Lee said the report's suggestion that lobsters should not be boiled was “a total nonsense”.

Mr Lee said boiling “instantly kills” a lobster, and “tightens up the meat, which gives the meat its flavour and enhances the taste”.

He kills Cromer crabs, on the other hand, by placing them in lukewarm water with no salt in it - “about the temperature that you would bath a baby in” - which he emphasised “sends them to sleep” over the course of some twenty minutes or more.

This method is referred to in the report as “osmotic shock” and the authors recommend that it too be banned if a more humane option is available. 

Mr Lee said his “forefathers would pull their hair out” at the number of regulations being placed on the fishing industry.

“As a fisherman, you get the feeling that there is a force in this country which won’t stop until there are no fishermen left whatsoever.”

Asked whether he thought crabs and lobsters were sentient, Mr Lee said he didn’t know but added: “I guess until we are all just eating plants they won’t be happy anyway. Where do you draw the line?”

A compromise suggested by the report is to electrocute the creatures before boiling them. 

But North Norfolk Fishermen’s Society chair John Davies gave the idea short shrift, saying that “water and electricity don’t go together very well”.

Shop local campaign Cromer North Norfolk John Davies Fish Shop Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

North Norfolk Fishermen's Society chairman John Davies - Credit: Archant

“At the moment it is hard enough to earn a living out of fishing,” he said, adding that the industry was struggling to recruit younger people.

“The most endangered species in the North Sea is fishermen.”

Mr Davies said however that all crab and lobster fishermen handle their catches with “the utmost care” and “dignity”, ensuring for example that they are transported and stored in cool conditions.

For Sue Riseborough, who served as Wells-next-the-Sea’s first and last gillying warden from 2016 to 2019, the recognition of crabs’ sentience is “brilliant” and “can’t be ignored”. 

Sue Riseborough from Wells-next-the-Sea was the first and last gillying volunteer in the seaside town from 2016 to 2019.

Former gillying warden Sue Riseborough - Credit: Sue Riseborough

Gillying - Norfolk’s preferred word for crabbing - is a popular activity for families on the county’s coast, but children and their parents are often unaware of the pain they can cause to the crustaceans by not gillying responsibly.

Ms Riseborough, who has lived in Wells all her life and went gillying as a child, worked in an office at the town’s harbour before taking up the voluntary warden role in her retirement. 

“I’d watch the people on the quay and they treated them [the crabs] so badly.

“They didn’t put water in the buckets, or they would leave them in the buckets for too long and they’d boil alive, or they’d be crushed in the buckets because they put too many in there.

“These are animals - they’re alive, they’ve got feelings.”

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