Failure Not an Option for the Lobster Industry

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Today I had a lobster for breakfast which was prepared on stage at the Seafood Expo North America by chef Alain Bosse. After he gave us a tutorial on how best to extract the succulent lobster meat – cracking the tail with one hand (no hammer needed), where to cut the claws and knuckles, and even how to get the meat out of the body – most people throw that part out! But as I sat and watched the presentation, my mind was still thinking about the discussion that preceded it.

Before chef Bosse started cracking shells, Carl Wilson, lead lobster biologist for the Department of Marine Resources in Maine gave a talk about the issues facing the lobster industry. The landings for lobster has dramatically increased in recent years due to natural changes in the environment. Wilson noted that slight increases in ocean temperatures has caused lobster populations to flourish. According to the EPA “warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Maine led to better survival rates of lobsters and lobster settlements”.

The industry is unique in that it is still supported largely by smaller fishing boats in local communities throughout the USA and Canada. Throughout the 1950’s up until the 1980’s it has been a stable fishery that has supported thousands of families. However, changes to the environment and ocean temperatures has increased lobster landings seven fold. This is a good thing for the consumer as now more people are able to enjoy lobster. However, because the supply has driven the value of lobster down, it’s made it more difficult for fishermen to earn a profit. After they pay for fuel, gear and employees, there is little left to take home.

Wilson also talked about how fishermen are investing in sustainability. For example, it’s illegal to harvest egg bearing lobsters. Fishermen are required to return them to the sea and mark them with a v-notch on their tails so they can continue to reproduce. There are also certain size requirements that fishermen must follow. It’s imperative that this fishery is protected as in some areas, 60-70% of income is generated solely by lobsters. Wilson says these communities are tied directly to the lobster resource. If the lobster fishery fails, then communities will fail and that is not an option.

Among other restrictions that promote sustainability are the use of traps which have a biodegradable panel that will dissolve if a trap is lost allowing the lobsters to escape. Wilson discussed some of his research where  electronic equipment was used to monitor lobster catches. Fishermen recorded legal and illegal catches, where the lobsters were caught and how much was caught. This allowed Wilson to study the migration patterns of lobsters and see how the temperature changes affect lobster migration and settlement.

Wilson explained that the lobster industry has come a long way from being in poor conditions on the 1980’s. Even though there is a 30 year increase in landings in the US and Canada, Wilson says it will be hard to sustain these numbers into the future. Bangor Daily News reports that in 2013 in Maine the state’s 6,000 licensed fishermen brought ashore nearly 126 million pounds of lobster and the average price lobstermen got for their catch in 2013 was $2.89, up slightly from $2.69 the year before. To put this in to perspective, the Maine Department of Marine Resources says in 2005 the industry landed just 70 million pounds with a value of $320 million.

As with any natural resource, it’s critical that we maintain its sustainability so future generations will be able to enjoy all it has to offer. After all, it’s not just a source of food. It also provides a living for fishermen and their families. Right now the major concern is with a decrease in value due to increased landings. But as Wilson noted, this is not going to be sustainable into the future so we also have to be mindful of protecting the lobster stocks. This is becoming more of a problem across all fisheries as demand for seafood around the world continues to increase.

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