Maine’s lobstermen, the key players in a $250 million-a-year industry, are in sorry shape. With herring bait selling at $35 a bushel – when they can get it – and diesel fuel at $4 a gallon, and lobster’s “boat price” down to $3 a pound, they often can’t afford to go out.
In a longer range, the lobstermen are being told that their catch can get a huge lift from a pending decision to seek certification as a sustainable industry from a nonprofit organization in London, the International Marine Stewardship Council, known as the MSC. The future that is being promised would assure vendors and consumers throughout the world that Maine lobsters are being harvested with prudence so that the resource will be sustained and the environment protected.
(Better not say the harvest is humane or we could bring People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals into the act. But they may be too busy trying to get people to stop steaming lobsters and other foolishness.)
If Maine goes ahead to seek MSC certification, it will require a lot of paperwork and monitoring. And it will cost from $800,000 to $1 million, which we are assured will be paid by people and groups associated with the industry but not by lobstermen or taxpayers.
One strong argument for going forward is that many important buyers of lobsters will insist before long on the MSC logo. Wal-Mart has already said that after February 2010 it will stop selling seafood that lacks MSC certification.
The question has arisen, of course, as to why that London-based logo is any better than the Certified Maine Lobster tag already being applied through the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. It reminds consumers that a Maine lobster is harvested by Mainers who routinely v-notch egg-bearing females and toss back any lobsters that are too long or too short to meet the state’s legal limits. Maine lobstermen know that a sustainable resource is in their own best interests. The Promotion Council keeps educating vendors and restaurant chains about the environmentally responsible industry and cultivating European and Asian markets.
Forty-five percent of Maine’s lobsters go to Canada, mostly for processing. Expanded Maine processing is unlikely because of Canada’s natural advantage: It has huge groundfish resources and can process year round, while Maine’s fishery is mostly lobster, with a six- or seven-month season.
In the short term Maine’s lobstermen are in real trouble. Already pinched between tripled costs and low revenues due largely to reduced demand for an expensive luxury item, they are hanging on. Certification, done right, could help.