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Maine Lobster: Defining Sustainability

Homerus Americanus, or American lobster, can be found all along the New England coast, as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Labrador, and should not be confused with their clawless warm water cousins, often called rock, or spiny lobster. The New England lobster is generally preferred by chefs and consumers alike, but many will agree that among this species, there is something special about Maine lobster. It is the flavor found in the cold, healthy waters of the Gulf of Maine, and the quality that comes from a culture of hard-working, multi-generational families that devote their lives to the catch.

Before it makes it to the plate, before it even walks into the trap, a lobster has to survive to maturity, which means growing from the size of a pea to legal harvesting size, or 1 ¼ pounds, which can take up to seven years. That’s twenty-four molts, each time making the animal temporarily vulnerable to ocean predators.

Catching lobster is no simple matter. With early mornings, long hours, and lots of physical labor, lobstermen are only allowed to keep a small fraction of what they pull up from the ocean floor, and the lobsters they do keep are selling for less than half of what they were a decade ago.



Certified Sustainable
Gerry Cushman, a fifth generation Maine lobsterman from the fishing village of Port Clyde is feeling the economic pinch. “In 2005, I averaged $4.92 for my lobsters for the year,” he says. “Last year, the average price was $2.20. From 2005 to today, the price of fuel and the price of bait have tripled, while the price of lobster has dropped more than half.”


It’s a shame, says Cushman, not just the financial loss, but because he believes that lobstering is an important part of American culture. “We don’t want to lose these small fishing villages. There are generations of fishermen’s families that have been doing this and they want to pass that on. It’s a great place to bring up your kids.”


Maine lobstering isn’t just a wholesome way of life. Its methods are also sustainable, doing very little damage to the ocean’s ecosystem, and there are very strict regulations that ensure a healthy lobster population for generations to come. In March of this year, the state of Maine was awarded the prestigious Sustainable Seafood Certification by the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). MSC certification recognizes ecologically sound methods from seafood harvesting through delivery to the consumer.

MSC recognition also will potentially raise sales on Maine lobster, as many retailers and consumers worldwide view certified seafood as premium products. At this year’s International Boston Seafood Show, Maine Governor Paul R. LePage said, “This certification recognizes our longstanding practices of good stewardship. It ensures that every lobster caught in Maine waters can be marketed not only as delicious, healthy food, but also as a resource that meets the most stringent international environmental standard for seafood sustainability.” 


Measuring the Catch
Part of adhering to the sustainability laws means making sure that Maine’s waters aren’t overfished. This is done in a number of ways by lobstermen like Cushman. On any given day, he has up to eight-hundred traps to check within his fishing territory. The traps are designed to catch only lobsters too large to fit through the vents, which allow smaller, immature lobsters to walk back into the ocean. Cushman still has to make sure that every lobster from every trap is of acceptable harvesting size, with a carapace (the top body excluding the tail) between 3 ¼ and 5 inches long. Those that are too big or too small go right back into the water, along with any females found with eggs on the underside of the abdomen.


“These females have their tails notched on the second flipper from the right,” notes Cushman, which signals other lobstermen that she must be returned to the water. “If next year I catch her and she’s not bearing eggs, I know she’s a breeder from the ‘V’ in her flipper and I’ll have to throw her back.”

Cushman is also prepared for the possibility of lost traps, an unfortunate inevitability of the job often due to bad weather. The traps he uses, like all Maine lobstermen, are designed to open if they aren’t retrieved. “The vents have these steel hog rings and they only last under water for about nine months,” explains Cushman. “So if the trap is lost, these hog rings open up the vent and any sized lobster can get out after that.”


Notably Flavorful
The promise of sustainability is one reason that consumers choose Maine lobster, but many agree that the great taste of the lobster is unique to its environment. Jeremy Sewall, owner and executive chef of Boston’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, buys all his lobster straight from his cousin Mark, a Maine lobsterman.

He claims that, although the quality of lobster relies largely on one’s proximity to the ocean, Maine lobster is best. “Maine has done an amazing job of marketing lobster so that it is identified with the state. The seacoast of Maine is a great environment for these creatures to grow. My personal opinion is that Maine lobster is the best tasting lobster in New England.”

Cushman agrees, attributing the quality of Maine lobster to the cleanliness of its environment. “We have really good tides, which filters the water in the Gulf of Maine. It makes for cleaner water and a cleaner environment for the lobsters.”

It’s not just chefs on the East Coast who favor Maine lobster. “I hold true to the Maine lobster for its flavor,” declares Chef Rick Moonen, chef/owner of rm seafood at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Moonen, who is also an outspoken advocate for seafood sustainability and an active member of several environmental watch groups, is optimistic about the supply of good lobster.

“As far as sustainability issues go,” he remarks, “there are always challenges. But because lobsters are trap-caught there is no real impact on the ocean environment and the population has a good chance of maintaining a healthy status.”


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