Noelle Swan

Massachusetts Tries to Revive Lobster Industry

In Uncategorized on October 6, 2011 at 2:34 pm

This article was first published by New England Post on October 6, 2011.

Lobster fishing isn’t a young man’s game. The average age for a lobsterman is 57 years old. “If a younger fella tries to get in this business, there’s an awful lot of overhead,” said 58-year-old lobsterman, Steve Holler. “You have to have some years and experience under your belt to take the losses.”

In an industry accustomed to rocky economic waters, this year has been exceptionally treacherous with warming seas and intense competition from out of state fisheries.

“What is killing us right now is up in Maine, they’re having a year that’s gonna go down in the record books,” said Holler. “They’re catching thousands of pounds a day. We’re having a tough time making expenses, and people are falling by the wayside.”

Holler and the state’s lobstermen hope that the public’s appetite for local products and new recognition from the state will give the industry a needed boost.

The Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR) announced at the recent Boston Local Food Festival that it would extend the Commonwealth Quality Program (CQP) to include lobstermen. The CQP is an established designation for local farms, forestry, and aquaculture.

The majority of the world’s lobster passes through Massachusetts before being distributed throughout the country by dealers. Massachusetts’s restaurants and markets have access to lobsters from Maine and from foreign fisheries. With no basis for comparison, price wins out.

DAR Commissioner Scott Soares said the program could help level the playing field. The CQP seal will tell consumers that not only was the lobster caught by local lobstermen, but also it was caught with sustainable and environmentally sound practices. “Harvesters are seeing a lot of product that come from other countries that are not held to the same environmental standards,” said Soares.

Many Massachusetts lobstermen have employed environmentally responsible practices for years, Soares said. “This is not designed as a regulation. There are already plenty of state regulations. This is a voluntary program to provide the opportunity to put out there that they are employing these practices.”

Holler said he did not have to alter his harvesting practices in order to qualify for certification. “We have to adhere to strict guidelines to the state anyway, as far as handling egg-bearing lobsters, short lobsters, and how we keep them in the tank,” said Holler. In fact, the DAR sought out Holler and other local lobstermen to find out what best practices were already established, like using ropes that sink to connect traps connected together in a daisy chain to avoid snaring endangered right whales.

But will consumers pay a premium for feel-good lobster? Fewer people have been buying lobster at all during the latest economic crunch. Those that have may be looking more closely at price.

While Holler doubts certification will boost his prices this year. Massachusetts lobster already sells for premium prices compared to Maine’s. And according to Bob Glenn, an aquatic biologist with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries, yields in the southern New England fishery may continue to decline as lobsters move north for colder waters.

“The southern New England fishery is in a state of collapse,” Glenn said. “Southern New England stock is suffering from a lot of stress that has to do with climate change.” In the last 10 to 20 years, water temperatures have increased, he explains. Water temperatures above 68 degrees affect lobsters’ reproductive cycles, migration patterns, and growth, as well as the overall health of fisheries.

“In the past five or six years has been a tremendous attrition in the fishery,” said Glenn. “We’ve seen anywhere from 40 to 50 percent attrition in the number of guys who simply couldn’t make it.”

So far, it remains unclear whether adding the word “Massachusetts” to those little elastic bands around lobster claws will increase local sales or not. The program is new and many retailers are unfamiliar with it. The Stop & Shop Supermarket Company declined to comment, saying that it did not have enough information to answer any questions.

Liz Ventura of North End Fish Market said she had read about the program but was not sure how much choice she would have when purchasing lobster from her distributors. “Of course we’d like to try to buy from those guys, but I don’t know how it will work yet.”

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