Getting ready to fish for lobster in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
BY RAMONA DU HOUX
May 4, 2013
“The most valuable lobster is a plate-ready live lobster,” said Hugh Reynolds of Greenhead Lobster. “But the next most valuable lobster is one with an uninjured, perfect tail.”
During the summer of 2012, the Town of Stonington received Rural Development funding that supported a pilot study of on-boat handling practices conducted by Penobscot East Resource Center. This pilot was documented by an informational video, “Stonington Lobster: Creating A Quality Brand,” produced by Stonington’s Opera House Arts and had a limited local release in September. The DVD is now being made available to all island lobster license holders as well as statewide.
The results of the study are clear: after 28 days and 1008 lobsters, the pilot showed that the lobsters handled and landed aboard vessels following the best handling protocols had far fewer injuries. Only eight out of every 100 lobsters aboard these vessels showed injury, while the numbers were much higher on boats that had made no changes: at 33 out of every 100. The “Best Handling Practices” were able to reduce injuries to lobsters by over 70 percent. An injured lobster is less valuable in the market.
Since the pilot’s completion, Stonington and Deer Isle fishermen have been meeting at Penobscot East to explore what they can do to ensure that they preserve the town’s reputation for excellent quality lobster in the new conditions of high stock levels and high water temperatures. The goal is to have Stonington lobsters landed in peak condition, able to survive well to consumers’ plates around the globe.
“Several captains and stern men in our local meetings commented on how landing a quality lobster is a matter of pride,” said Holly Eaton, Penobscot’s East Community Liaison.
This effort is the latest in a pro-active, collaborative effort that started in 2008 when the Stonington Lobster Working Group formed to address the low lobster prices that arose from the global financial crisis. The group identified the quality of the landed lobster as one key element of lobster price that the town could affect and has worked in a variety of ways since then on education and research around lobster quality. Penobscot East partnered with Maine Sea Grant to produce the training video used in the industry-wide Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) video.
In the pilot handling study, Penobscot East worked with four captains and their lobster dealer, Green Head Lobster to develop a list of six “Best Handling Practices.” Each of the four captains ensured that the practices would be upheld aboard their fishing vessels for the month of August.
The six practices were:
1) Carefully breaking traps over the “toe-rail”,
2) Treating their lobsters like eggs,
3) Using cushioned, cool and moist, banding stations,
4) Monitoring water circulation,
5) Removing each lobster by hand, and
6) Carefully placing them in crates going the same direction.
Sample lobster from the pilot boats were collected every weekday, as well as samples from boats that were not participating in the pilot, in order to assess what kinds of damage the animals were experiencing, as well as their overall health and vitality. Participating captains had the dissolved oxygen levels in their lobster tanks read many times throughout the pilot to see how much air was actually available in the water where the lobster was held onboard.
This winter, Penobscot East convened a series of outreach meetings inviting lobstermen, their sternmen and industry members to view the video, discuss the handling practices, and perceptions, concerns, and observations around lobster quality and handling, and what else they can do to keep their lobsters in peak condition in the new conditions of very high abundance and high water temperatures.
Participating lobstermen have liked the video and discussions have reflected some surprise about how much of a difference on-board handling can make to the quality of the lobsters that are being landed. They have also said they can’t “take for granted that people are using these practices.”
Several lobstermen reflected that it’s time to remind both captain and sternman, that good handling techniques need to start aboard the boat, and that lobsters need to be handled like live animals. At the same time, many have reflected on the challenge that the abundance of lobsters presents to lobstermen and sternmen, making it difficult to take the time to handle one lobster at a time.
Now, the issue of lobster quality and handling practices are surfacing across the coastal regions of Maine and even was a topic of discussion at this year’s “Lobster Town Meeting” held in New Brunswick. The Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources, and the Maine Lobstermen’s Alliance both came out in support of good handling techniques earlier this spring, suggesting that there will be continued work at various levels in order to increase awareness around what lobstermen can do to have a better quality state of Maine lobster.
In Stonington, the work continues this summer. Interested captains, and dealers are welcome to schedule times for a member of the Penobscot East staff to monitor the dissolved oxygen in the water either in their tanks, or dockside.