Lobster industry considers traceability

Posted March 29, 2009, at 7:19 p.m.

SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick — This year’s annual meeting between lobstermen from New England and Atlantic Canada was billed ahead of time as an opportunity for people to discuss what external factors the lobster industry might face in the near future.

Water quality, offshore drilling, wind farms and stock enhancement efforts all were mentioned as possible agenda items, but what took precedence at the meeting held here Friday and Saturday were the views of and demands upon the industry by the public and outside groups.

One such topic is the concept of traceability, by which consumers and regulators can keep track of the chain of custody of their food from the point it is harvested until it arrives on their plates. The issue was considered by about 50 people who attended this year’s Canadian-United States Lobstermen’s Town Meeting, which is organized annually by the University of Maine Lobster Institute and was held at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre.

Traceability is an issue, according to people at the conference, because beginning next year the European Union will require that all imported seafood be traceable to its source. The reason for this, they said, is that such information will help prevent illegal harvests of marine species and will enable regulators and consumers to respond more quickly and effectively if tainted food appears on the market.

“A lot of fishermen don’t know what traceability is,” said Cathy Billings, the Lobster Institute’s associate director. “It’s going to be a safety issue and a human health issue.”

The concept has gained in popularity in recent years after outbreaks of mad cow disease made regulators and consumers more concerned about knowing how to track beef to its original source, Billings said.

Though traceability may require more paperwork for people in the lobster industry, it could help give it a boost, too, people at the conference agreed.

It could prove to be a way for the industry to promote its product as sustainable and healthy, they said, without having to get such confirmation or certification from outside groups. If consumers have to be informed somehow that their lobster came from a fisherman who lives and works in New England or Atlantic Canada, it also could be an opportunity for them to find out how the lobster was caught and about the relatively robust health of the lobster fishery.

Swan’s Island fisherman Jason Joyce said he already has dabbled voluntarily in traceability when it comes to his lobster. He said he has been putting bands on the claws of lobsters he catches that have his Web site address printed on them, so consumers can go online and find out more about where their lobster came from.

This kind of traceability can enhance lobster as a premium product, he said, and perhaps help add a few dollars onto what consumers are willing to pay. For this reason, he is careful to make sure that what he sends out is good quality.

“We have no problem sending to market what we put in that crate,” Joyce said.

But there still remain issues with traceability that need to be resolved, some people said. What if a fisherman sells high-quality, whole lobster to a dealer, but it ends up getting damaged in transit? Will the fisherman be unfairly blamed?

And what about the processed market, which mainly comes out of Canada? Lobster that may not be suitable for a restaurant dinner plate often gets processed into pieces and canned, giving it a longer shelf life.

Such processed products are made from lobster that is imported from all over, so the lobster meat that ends up in a canned tin could come from multiple harvesters. Is it worth keeping track of the origins of every lobster that ends up in a tin, people at the conference wondered, and if it is, how do you keep track of that information so you can match it up with the final product?

“If we’re talking processed lobster, it’s a bigger problem because we import it and we sort it out,” said Andre Martin of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union.

Conference attendees agreed they should look into ways the lobster industry in Canada and the U.S. can work together to help inform the buying public about where lobster comes from and what kind of conservation methods the industry has voluntarily pursued over the years. Media promotion, placing information in stores and providing real-world links to information on the Internet were all mentioned as options.

“We’ve got to get away from ourselves,” said Dana Staples of East Coast Seafood, based in Lynn, Mass. “We’ve got to go where the markets are, and a lot of the markets are overseas. We’ve got to convince people that, after 100 years, we know what we’re doing.”

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