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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 6, 2012
Maine lobster on threshold of sustainability certification

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by Jessica Brophy

After a four-year process of evaluation, Maine lobster is on schedule to receive certification as a sustainable fishery by the end of this year or in early 2013.

“The basic goal of the industry is—and should be—sustainability, both economic and environmental. Then, let the marketplace know how well Maine fishermen do that,” said John Hathaway, CEO of Shucks Maine Lobsters in Richmond and president of the Fund for Sustainable Maine Lobster.

Hathaway explained that the Fund, fueled by private money raised primarily by fellow lobster-processor owner Linda Bean, began the effort in 2008 to be certified as a sustainable fishery by the international Marine Stewardship Council. Then-governor John Baldacci offered Department of Marine Resources staff and research support to the project, but Hathaway stresses the project was not funded by taxpayers or fishermen.

The MSC, headquartered in London with offices around the world, has “developed standards for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability. They ensure that MSC-labeled seafood comes from and can be traced back to a sustainable fishery.”

Using the MSC label is entirely voluntary, said Hathaway. “No one has to use the label if they don’t want to,” he continued.

Togue Brawn, a consultant on the project, presented the current state of Maine lobster’s application to the crowd at the Lobster Advisory Council meeting on Thursday, August 16.

The MSC certifies fisheries on a series of criteria. The first is how sustainable the exploited stock is—in other words, whether the supply of fish is holding up to the current fishing practices. Second is the consideration of the maintenance of the ecosystem—whether the fishing is damaging the environment. The third criterion is how well the fishery is managed—how regulations are determined and enforced and how decisions are made in the industry.

During the certification process, “conditions” are placed on the fishery if approval is granted. In other words, Maine lobster is granted MSC certification on the condition that it attempts to remedy what MSC considers a problem within five years, when the certification would need to be re-issued.

“Maine lobster passed certification with three conditions,” said Brawn. None of these conditions relate to what fishermen do on the water or how lobsters are caught, said Brawn. The MSC wants more information about the impact of trap fishing on the floor of the ocean. Brawn said a study will be conducted, though trap fisheries traditionally have very little impact on the ocean floor, unlike dragging.

The other two conditions relate to management of the fishery. While the MSC approves of the practices of Maine lobstermen, said Brawn, nowhere are the reasons for the practice fully articulated. In other words, things like the v-notch program is exactly the kind of things MSC is looking for in fishery management, but nowhere does it explicitly say the v-notch program helps promote breed stock lobsters and preserve the continuation of the fishery.

Overall, said Brawn, the concerns of the third-party certification group were minor. “We have a thriving resource that is being sustainably harvested, and we need to get out there and tell people,” said Brawn.

Hathaway said he doesn’t see MSC certification as a “silver bullet” for the industry’s struggling low prices. “It’s a piece of the puzzle,” he explained. “It’s not the be-all and end-all but it is a piece, a way to differentiate from other lobster, particularly Canadian lobster.”

One of the ways MSC certification and its “ecolabel” can differentiate Maine lobster from Canadian lobster is traceability. In order to use the MSC’s branded label, a “chain of custody” must be established. That is, from the harvester to dealer to processor to retailers and consumers, Maine lobster has to be kept separate from other non-Maine lobster product in order to use the MSC label. This means if a Canadian processor wants to sell lobster with the MSC label of sustainability, it must keep Maine lobster separate from Canadian lobster, which is not certified. Hathaway said he has not heard of Canada pursuing certification for its fishery.

“The benefit is the branding and differentiation from Canadian lobster. They are heavily subsidized, and it’s hard to beat them on price,” said Hathaway. Sustainability may be a way to mark Maine lobster as qualitatively different and therefore help bring price up.

On its website, MSC said that 23 percent of shoppers across markets around the world recognized the MSC “ecolabel” in 2010, up from 9 percent in 2008. MSC also documented one example of MSC certification boosting sales of seafood in France.

A master’s research project completed by Wendy Goyert for Duke University, available online, studied the potential benefits of MSC certification. Her results showed “most consumers will likely be unwilling to pay a price premium for MSC certified products, especially in this economy.” However, Goyert did find that there might be some benefit in tapping new markets in Europe and selling to retailers with sustainable seafood policies, as well as preserving current markets.

Hathaway said when the effort to obtain MSC certification began, it wasn’t clear that the demand for sustainable seafood would grow, though Hathaway said “it was trending that way.” Now, he continued, there’s “no question that sustainability is expected.”

Both Walmart and Hannaford established policies on sustainable seafood earlier this year, according to the corporate websites of both companies. Both companies say no seafood will be sold without sustainable seafood certification or (as is the case with Walmart) “be actively working toward certification.”

The “ecolabel” will likely be available for use on marketing and sale of Maine lobster at the end of this year or early 2013, according to Brawn.