Lobster fishermen confer in Canada

Posted March 29, 2009, at 10:12 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.

SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick — They may have different regulations, different seasons and even different types of catch, but that doesn’t mean lobstermen in the United States and Canada don’t have a lot in common.

Global economic and environmental concerns affect lobstermen in both countries, participants at a cross-border lobster industry forum agreed Friday. To address these global concerns, there may be things lobstermen in New England and in Atlantic Canada can do together to boost the long-term economic and environmental viability of their industry.

Marketing and sustainability were among the primary topics discussed Friday by 50 or so people who attended the yearly Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen’s Town Meeting at the Saint John Trade & Convention Centre. The event, which alternates each year between the United States and Canada, is hosted by the University of Maine Lobster Institute.

Canada’s lobster industry is not always cast in the best light by Maine fishermen, as demonstrated in 2007 when Maine lobstermen threatened to not fish because seafood processors north of the border were offering too little money for their catch. But such talk did not surface Friday. Instead, fishermen and dealers from both sides of the border commiserated, among other things, about how and whether they should get their fishery certified as sustainable.

There has been some consideration in Maine of getting the fishery certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, which is based in London. But Canadian and New England industry representatives on Friday balked at the idea of getting such a designation from an outside group.

“I think we ought to certify our own product,” said Dana Rice, a dealer and former lobsterman from Gouldsboro, eliciting applause from others in the group.

MSC certification may help fishermen get their product sold at Wal-Mart, some said, but any price premium they might get from the certification likely would be undone by Wal-Mart’s penchant for getting suppliers to reduce their wholesale prices. Some fishermen also worried what might happen if MSC or another outside certifying agency decided to revoke the industry’s certification. Even though the lobster resource is healthy, they said, one whale getting entangled in lobster gear could be used as justification for not certifying the industry as sustainable.

Bar Harbor lobsterman Jon Carter thinks such certification is a good idea, but said the idea that it could be revoked “scares the hell out of me.”

Greg Thompson, who fishes out of Dipper Harbor in New Brunswick, questioned whether consumers would trust any fishery’s self-certification, given the depleted state of many marine species populations.

“I’m not sure that people who want sustainability will take my word for it,” he said.

Others countered the industry could use the results of already completed scientific studies to bolster its sustainability claims. Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute, said his organization already is working on a draft plan on how the industry could certify itself.

“We can get [scientific] references for most of these things,” Bayer said. “This is one of the best managed fisheries in the world. There may be an opportunity here to tell our own story.”

Another opportunity for cross-border cooperation may lie in promoting lobster in general, according to meeting attendees. Lobster often is promoted as being either from Maine or from Canada, but the distinction can confuse consumers or undermine promotion efforts on the other side of the border, they said.

Fishermen in Canada and the United States frequently depend on buyers in the other country for earning money off their catch. Because lobster caught in Maine during the summer and fall tends to have a softer shell, it doesn’t survive shipping well enough to appeal to restaurant diners outside of the state. As a result, as much as 70 percent of the lobster in Maine is shipped to processors in Canada, who package the meat in more durable form.

Conversely, lobster in Canada tends to be caught during the winter when its harder shell makes it more suitable for long-distance shipping to the main restaurant markets in Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

Peter McAleney of New Meadows Lobster in Portland suggested that if dealers like himself and fishermen on either side of the border are willing to contribute a few cents per pound, they could work together to come up with an effective North Atlantic lobster promotion campaign. Promoting lobster as a sensuous or nutritional food could help boost demand, some attendees said.

“It sounds simple, and it might work,” McAleney said. “As an industry, we cannot rely on our governments. We’ve got to do it ourselves.”

Despite the cooperative spirit, there was some slight indication of distrust within the industry, not on either side of the border but between fishermen and dealers. Some fishermen voiced long-held suspicions that they always fare worse than dealers when lobster prices decrease, as they did significantly last year in both Canada and the United States.

Dealers at the meeting said they are not to blame for poor fishermen profits, however. Everyone has been affected by the economic downturn, they said.

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