Sustainably harvested – before it was cool

Hauling lobster off of the coast of Stonington, Maine.

The lobster industry cares deeply about sustainability. And not just because an NGO tells us to do so, or because we are trying to meet a third party certification standard. Seafood Watch rates Maine Lobster as a good alternative product and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has certified the fishery in the Gulf of Maine and Atlantic Canada as sustainable fisheries. These and other programs can be helpful guides for consumers and as standards for fisheries that are committed to improving their harvest methods to ensure a strong future for the resource. But the logo you may see on a package at your local supermarket doesn’t tell the whole story. So what exactly does “sustainably harvested” mean for the Maine lobster industry?

The Maine lobster industry has fished essentially the same way for generations. Yes, we have gone from sail to fuel, invented chart plotters and depth sounders, and today we use hydraulic haulers instead of fishing by hand. But fishermen still set their traps one by one and haul them back the same way. Lobsters are off-loaded from boats by the fisherman who caught them and sold to a co-op or an independent wharf that supports a group of lobstermen. But most remarkably, many of the regulations used today to manage the Maine lobster industry have existed for over 100 years, resulting in one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world.

Inefficient by design

Lobster traps are a passive gear type. When a fisherman sets his gear, lobsters crawl in and out of traps at will until that trap is hauled back a couple of days later. There is no damage to the habitat on the sea floor. Would it be faster to drag a net across the ocean to harvest lobsters? Maybe. But we like to keep the essential fish habitat healthy and our lobster quality high, so it has been illegal to drag for lobster since 1961.

In a day and age when consolidation runs throughout the fishing and farming sector, the lobster industry in Maine is still totally owner-operated. That means that fishermen need to have their own license, own their own boat, and they must be on the boat when it is fishing. This prevents corporate ownership and the consolidation of a fleet of vessels to a major port. Not only is our resource sustainable, our communities are, too because the fleet is diverse. The geographic diversity along the coast of Maine supports thousands of fishermen, dock workers, lobster buyers, processors and shippers. There are islands and coastal communities in Maine that are nearly 80% dependent on this industry for their economic survival. We must take care of this business.

Lobster conservation for generations

Measuring the lobster carapace from eye socket to the end of the body | Maine DMR photo.

In 1920, the forefathers of the industry set the minimum lobster size as 3.25 inches carapace length. In 1933, they set a maximum size at 5 inches. This window of legal lobster sizes allows juvenile lobsters to reach maturity to ensure they will reproduce the next generation of lobsters and ensures that we take care of our big breeding population. The bigger the lobster, the more eggs she can carry.

But there’s more. Fishermen cannot land egg-bearing female lobsters – and this law has been on the books since 1889! In 1917 a law was established to require fishermen to make a v-shaped notch in the tail of the egg-bearing lobster and return her to the ocean. The V will last through an average of four molt cycles, so the next lobsterman who finds her knows that she is a good breeder and he will be required by law to return her to the ocean, too.

A female lobster carrying thousands of eggs.
An egg-bearing female lobster is illegal to harvest.

The lobster industry takes lobster conservation very seriously. Many of the rules and regulations currently in place were created by the very fishermen who fished for lobster generations ago and now their grandchildren are reaping the benefit. But fisheries management isn’t static because the environment is always changing. Maine lobstermen now have a formal process for involvement in the management structure. Strong management supports sustainable resources and healthy coastal economies.

When you eat lobster, you are supporting a sustainable fishery that also sustains our communities up and down the Maine Coast. So what are you waiting for?!