Sustainable shellfish

Sustainable shellfish

Far more than just fish and chips awaits in Ayrshire, with sustainable local langoustines and lobster on the menu

When asked to think of seafood from Ayrshire, your mind would be forgiven for being transported to a bench beside the seaside, fish and chips in hand, the sweet, steamy waft of vinegar and newspaper filling your nostrils while seagulls squawk overhead and salty air licks at your cheeks.

Yet Ayrshire produces much more than the humble fish supper. This fruitful coastline has always been home to a strong fishing industry, which in the past, shaped many of the coastal communities including Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Troon.

If you’d visited one of these towns in the 1800s you would probably have seen a harbour bustling with hundreds of boats. You may even have seen a brawny fisherman’s wife hoisting up her skirt and carrying her husband through the shallow waters to plonk him on his boat so that he would stay dry during his long day at sea. Now that’s devotion for you. In those days herring, salmon, cod, hake and skate were in abundance in the Firth of Clyde, and would be hauled in by the net full to be sold at the fish market in Ayr, which could then be sold on as far away as England, Ireland and France.

These days, however, dwindling fish stocks stacked up with government quotas, regulations and bans, means that the majority of Ayrshire’s catch is made up of shellfish. The fish that do come from these waters are mainly made up of the small amounts of legal by-catch from langoustine trawlers.

Langoustines are in abundance in the Firth of Clyde and many trawler boats visit the coast all year round to harvest these succulent, tasty little beasties.

Once caught, the majority are packed on ice and either exported to the markets and restaurants of locations such as Paris and Milan, or rather less glamorously, sent to food processing plants.

Two thirds of all the world’s langoustine are sourced in Scotland, with many of these coming from the Firth of Clyde. However, much to the disappointment of the owner of Fencebay Fisheries, Tom Campbell, they’re not all eaten here.

‘It’s all about the freshness,’ says Campbell, who explains that the longer the crustaceans are kept after being plucked from the sea, the more the sugars and proteins break down - rendering them tasteless. ‘You can't beat langoustines fresh out of the sea, boiled up in a pot of salty water. The taste is immense. You can’t get that out of a supermarket.'

Campbell’s business comprises of a small trout farm, a smokehouse, a farm shop and an award-winning restaurant, the Catch at Fins.

He firmly believes that fresh fish is far superior over chemically laden, processed foods that have a longer shelf life.

Someone else that preaches this belief is Tom Bryson, the owner of HQ Shellfish, who has fished in the Ardrossan area since he was a young boy.

‘We go out and catch lobsters to order, so our lobsters come out of the sea and go straight to the restaurant that day,’ says Bryson.

He and his brother have taken the art of fishing back to how the fisherfolk of Ayrshire’s past used to: fresh from the sea to the plate, and with a deep respect for the ocean. His mother even watches her sons working in the harbour from her living room window.

Having scuba dived in the area he has seen from himself how the langoustine trawler nets ‘destroy the seabed’, which in turn destroys everything else.

‘If you fish the sea to a certain level and only take what you need, and put things back like pregnant female lobsters, then the sea will be there to fish forever,’ says Bryson.

It’s an extraordinarily refreshing ethos to hear from a businessman. And one that, if adopted more widely, could keep this beautiful coastline alive.

Fencebay & Fins

Fencefoot Farm, Fairlie, North Ayrshire, KA29 0EG

A food chain in its own right, this small complex includes a farm shop, smokehouse and seafood restaurant, The Catch at Fins, as well as hosting a monthly market.