A Maine Without Lobster?
- By: michael sanders
When most of us go down to the coast, whether to walk, swim, fish, or sail, we take for granted what we see: the lobsterboats and the colorful buoys marking the strings of traps, the bobbing green cans and red ones marking safe passage, and, in the larger working harbors like Portland, Stonington, and Port Clyde, the draggers unloading fish they’ve caught far out in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank.
What we don’t realize is that this seemingly unchanging marine world is in fact always changing in ways both large and small. Those who go down to the sea to fish in the coming years will face issues that would never have seemed possible a generation ago. Some developments are wholly positive, like innovations in fishing gear that lead to less wasteful fishing and advances in lobster processing that add value to the resource. Other changes are going to be challenging. With the loss of waterfront fishing infrastructure to residential construction and non-marine uses, fishermen face difficulties, from where to moor their boats to complex new rules governing how and where they fish. Over it all hangs the question of sustainability — of bait species such as herring, of cod and haddock and other groundfish stocks, even, over the long term, of the in-shore lobster population itself. Here are five forces that will shape the future of the fishing industry.
“In Maine, herring is king,” says Professor Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. “Generally, lobstermen use about one pound of bait to catch one pound of lobster.” That means that just under 100 million pounds of bait was used to catch a record 93 million pounds of lobster in 2010. “There have been periodic shortages over the last twenty years, which is why we’ve been developing alternatives,” Bayer continues. “They include cowhide, tuna heads, salmon racks [skeletons], salmon skins, even freshwater species of fish from the Great Lakes.” The salmon baits, byproducts of often-distant fish farms, must be cooked to prevent the introduction of pathogens into Maine waters. Freshwater species also pose a high risk of cross-contamination. All of the alternatives are either experimental or used infrequently, and herring remains the lobsterman’s preferred bait.
But is it efficient to essentially “farm” lobster by feeding them up on the odd chance you might catch them in a trap? “Herring is lipid-rich and has a lot of scent to attract the lobsters and keep them there,” says Jon Grabowski, a benthic ecologist who studies links between herring, cod, and lobster at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “Does bait enhance their growth rate and is it substantial portion of their diet? Yes.” In addition, Grabowski says, “If you look at the cost of the bait versus the value of lobsters, it makes sense to feed them because it could be accounting for 15 to 20 percent of the landings” [by enhancing the growth of juvenile lobsters] and that’s a substantial amount of money.” Last year, total lobster landings were valued at $310 million, supporting about six thousand lobstermen and their families, but the industry’s economic impact is much wider, generating income for bait and fuel businesses, processors, restaurants, wholesalers, and retailers.
If there are herring shortages because the lobster industry is so hungry for them, why not just eat the herring? Isn’t this the marine equivalent of the don’t-eat-the-beef-eat-the-grain argument? Patrice McCarron, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, burst out laughing when I posed the question. “I have just one answer,” she says. “You come home from work. ‘You want herring or lobster for dinner, honey?’ your wife asks. Sure, we could eat herring, but it happens that here in Maine we don’t.”
2. Sector Fishing
In 2010, 95 percent of the five million pounds of Gulf of Maine groundfish — the haddock, flounder, halibut, cod, grey sole, redfish, and other species — caught by Maine boats was landed at the Portland Fish Exchange. If you think that sounds like a lot, think again. “Back in the early ’90s, we handled about 30 million pounds of fish per year,” says general manager Bert Jongerden. “We had close to 350 boats selling us their catch.” He laughs bitterly, adding, “Might have been too much of a good thing. By then, overfishing was occurring. Today, we have twenty to twenty-five boats landing their catch, with maybe forty more trucking it in.” One third of the Fish Exchange’s facility is now rented out to other businesses.
To protect declining stocks, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) last year introduced a system for regulating catches based on group quotas rather than limiting the number of days an individual fisherman can be at sea. “If the fishermen organize into [a sector], and the sector agrees to a limit on how much fish it catches each year, then we’ll exempt the sector from some of these other controls,” NEFMC fishery analyst Tom Nies elaborates. “You can land whatever you want today as long as you don’t catch more than this amount in a given year. It works because you can keep your costs down.”
Sectors facilitate much more efficient fishing by aggregating small, individual catch shares into larger pools. If Cundy’s Harbor fisherman Terry Alexander goes out for cod, for example, he knows he’s going to catch some haddock. (Some species, like cod and haddock, swim together.) He can log onto the sector Web site to see who might have haddock allocation he can trade or buy if he has run through his own. It no longer matters who in the sector catches what on any given trip as long as the group’s totals stay below the sector’s allocation of each species.
“Sector management” was initially a bit frightening for independent-minded fishermen, nevertheless, a majority of the Gulf of Maine groundfish fleet fished under sectors during the 2010-2011 season, with those who opted out falling into “the common pool” under days-at-sea regulations.
“Now there is an economic incentive for people to fish cleanly and reduce discards,” says Glen Libby, president of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a midcoast fishermen’s cooperative and a member of the Port Clyde sector. Discards are the parts of the catch, usually dead or dying, that are returned to the sea when fishermen reach their trip limits. “Sector management rewards you for adopting concepts like using a larger mesh net to reduce your discards. Since discards are subtracted from their next year’s quota, fishermen think more about what they’re doing. We’re learning ways to communicate and do things collectively.”
In the first year of sectors, “we did reduce catches,” Nies says, “and there is preliminary evidence that we reduced discards, particularly on species we had catch limits on, like Gulf of Maine cod.”
Looming over this rosy outcome, however, are the administrative costs of the new regulations. The total value of the fishery is $65-$75 million per year, Jongerden points out, “and they’re going to spend $45 million to regulate it?” Though much of this budget is for one-time development, there are substantial continuing costs. The at-sea and dockside monitors alone cost $7 million this year, a portion soon to be paid by the fishermen.
Some fishermen, like Rob Odlin, who’s fished out of Portland since age fourteen, feel like they had their hands forced. “I started in the common pool last year because I thought I could do okay just buying more days at sea,” he says. “My cod limit was eight hundred pounds per day, and when it dropped to a hundred pounds my profit nearly ended. It’s death by a thousand cuts. I’m in the situation where I hope I can lease [the right to catch] fish and then sell the fish for three times that money. Sometimes you pay a buck and you only get $1.20.” Odlin now fishes in a sector.
3. New Technology and New Gear
As scientists have come to better understand fish behavior, gear has been developed to help fishermen land the fish they want to keep and release those that otherwise would become discards. One example: the separator trawl net, designed in response to behavioral differences of haddock, cod, and other species. Think of it as a long, rectangular cone of netting, open at the end nearest the boat and closed at the rear, called the “cod end,” where the captured fish collect. Now imagine it is divided horizontally into two sections. “As the fish reach the trawl, haddock tend to rise upwards, while cod and flounder stay close to the sea bed,” explains Steve Eayrs, of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “You can leave the lower cod end open if you don’t want to catch cod and flounder, while the top will catch the rising haddock. Now that fishermen go to sea with allocations, they want to avoid species they can’t keep.” While not perfect, the separator net is a step forward.
Although the lobster trap hasn’t changed in a few generations, the processing and marketing end of that business has lately been pulled into the twenty-first century, driven in part by new technology and a growing awareness that new products sold in new ways in new markets will ultimately raise the currently very low boat price to a sustainable level.
As a result, Patrice McCarron says, “It looks like Maine will have six lobster processors working within the next year, double what we’ve had.”
One innovator, Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, has adapted a two-story, forty-ton high pressure processing machine developed to sterilize packs of lunch meat for Hormel into a fast, efficient, sanitary, and humane lobster processor they call the “Big Mother Shucker.” Water, at pressures up to 87,000 psi, is injected into a sealed steel tank containing live lobsters, killing them, along with any pathogens in the flesh, instantly. Unlike normally processed frozen cooked lobster meat, which contains microbes that spoil it quickly, high pressure-processed frozen raw meat lasts up to eighteen months.
“Lobster is one of the last foods we eat that you have to kill in your kitchen,” says Shucks COO Charlie Langston. “This, naturally, limits its market.”
“We think that the market for live lobster is in decline,” adds Shucks CEO John Hathaway. “It’s not like more of the world is demanding live Maine lobster. What they want is great prepared lobster, whether from a great chef or a retail location.” Increasing the demand for what he firmly believes is a sustainable resource, Hathaway points out, is a good thing for the lobsterman, too, because it raises the boat price in the long term.
High pressure processing also solves a fundamental processing problem — how to get the lobster meat out of the shell without cooking it. Cooking, freezing, then reheating makes for a less delicate texture and short shelf life. After high pressure processing, the meat, from the tail section to the delicate fan-shaped swimmerets, slides out in one piece. Once the shell is cracked, claw and knuckle meat also emerges in whole pieces.
What’s new in frozen seafood? Lobster mac n’ cheese, lobster pie, lobster chowder, and other products from Calendar Island, Hancock Gourmet, Claw Island, Fresh Maine, Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine, and Cozy Harbor. These companies, many relatively new, want to sell Maine on a microwave tray in a growing variety
Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, a cooperative of midcoast lobstermen in partnership with investors like the Stonewall Kitchen founders, takes Maine seafood branding a step further. “We offer Maine lobster we caught,” says cooperative president John Jordan, “[These are] high-quality prepared dishes, something easy for people so they can have a great experience at home that doesn’t have to be the traditional boiled lobster dinner.” The Calendar Islands customer, Jordan explains, not only “wants to know where her food comes from, but she also wants to feel good that she’s directly supporting the fishing families who caught it.”
Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a group of ground fishermen and lobstermen who process and sell their own catches, has also responded to the locavore movement. Besides selling fish, lobsters, and other seafood on a wholesale basis, the cooperative is selling directly to about four hundred midcoast area families through a community supported fisheries program in which consumers buy shares for weekly allotments of fresh catch. “We can pay our fishermen more,” Glen Libby points out, “because we’re not sending the fish to Portland, and because we reduce the number of people who have to handle it.”
While last year’s groundfish catch was valued at about $5 million, salmon raised in pens in three Down East locations fetched a whopping $76 million, comprising 17 percent of the entire value of all species caught or raised in Maine waters last year.
“Over 90 percent of my new members are actually ex-commercial fishermen or the sons and daughters of commercial fishermen,” says Sebastian Belle, the longtime executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. “The reason for that is very simple: It’s the only way they can continue to make a living on the water. They can’t get a lobster permit, they can’t get a groundfish permit, they can’t get a scallop permit.”
Maine’s most important aquaculture products are salmon, mussels, and oysters, followed by codfish and halibut, Belle says.
Maine fish farmers enjoy a geographical advantage that translates into real money. “Prices for Maine-grown mussels and oysters and salmon are typically between 10 and 20 percent higher than any equivalent except organic product coming in from Europe,” Belle says. “We harvest something and put it on a truck, and it’s at the consumer within twenty-four hours, so we have a huge shelf life advantage over any imports.”
Another plus, Belle continues, is that aquaculture operations tend to vertically integrate, establishing on-site processors, which means local jobs. Cooke Aquaculture, a family-owned operation out of New Brunswick, invested $60 million in its operation in 2007, then re-opened the shuttered Machiasport processing plant in 2008. “That plant employs 150 people in Machiasport,” Belle says. “Machiasport! With benefits! That’s huge. It’s also the first fish processing plant opened in the state in the last twelve years.”
The Long View May Be Gloomy
Each of these five trends has the potential to reshape the fishing industry by creating new opportunities — or new problems. But what about the big picture? What does the future look like for the whole of the Gulf of Maine? One man who has been studying this complex ecosystem is Dr. Robert Steneck of the University of Maine. He is plainspoken and even brutal in his assessment of the current health of the Gulf.
“Abundant organisms of the past that are now rare (cod) and rare organisms that are now abundant (lobsters) are symptoms of an ecosystem way out of balance,” Steneck says. “Older lobstermen remember coastal Maine when it was diverse. They didn’t depend on one species.” There is no easy remedy. “Adding predators to the Gulf of Maine,” Steneck continues, “is similar to asking a factory worker to take a pay cut to insure job security.”
An industry based largely on lobster monoculture, Steneck implies, is one vulnerable to a crash. Not so long ago, the Bay State had healthy lobster landings. Now, in light of devastating harvests, fishery authorities are contemplating the unthinkable: The first ever moratorium on lobstering in Massachusetts waters.
Can you imagine a Maine without lobster?
- By: michael sanders