A Real Lobster Stew

Posted Jan. 04, 2011, at 6:39 p.m.

A London-based organization, the Marine Stewardship Council, is considering whether to certify the Maine lobster industry as being sustainable. Among members of Gov. John Baldacci’s industry task force that filed the application, there are rightly some skeptics.

For one thing, Maine’s lobster industry is clearly sustainable.

Lobstermen abide by trap limits and restrictions on new entries into the trade. And they throw back undersize and oversize lobsters as well as egg-bearing females, after notching their tails to notify other lobstermen.

For another, the certification is costly. The initial charge of $200,000 has already been paid privately by people and groups associated with the industry. Annual payments for monitoring during the five-year term of the certification could bring the total to more than $500,000.

Such a big outlay could show up in a hike in what the public will pay for lobsters.

The Marine Stewardship Council is a nonprofit institution with an annual budget of $13 million. It relies largely on its for-profit assessor, Moody International, also based in England. Certification leads to a blue “ecolabel” that assures consumers that a product comes from a sustainable and environmentally approved source.

In the Sept. 2 issue of the scientific journal Nature, a group of marine researchers questioned some of its certification decisions and suggested that the council does not protect the environment adequately. They foresaw a possible conflict of interest because certifiers “might expect to receive more work and profit from annual audits.”

They showed that business boomed for the council when Wal-Mart announced in 2006 that it would sell only council-certified seafood.

Whether Maine will continue to seek certification remains under consideration, says John Hathaway, owner of the processing company Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond. He is chairman of the lobster industry board appointed by Gov. Baldacci.

Mr. Hathaway and others in the industry see the certification as a marketing rather than an environmental issue. It could help satisfy the guilt that some consumers feel in eating seafood. And it would let Maine lobsters continue to compete in a world market that increasingly demands ecolabeling.

But Legal Sea Foods in Boston, which serves a lot of Maine lobsters, has no such worries.

Bill Holler, the company’s vice president of seafood purchasing, said by telephone that Legal Sea Foods will continue to buy Maine lobsters with or without the certification. He said: “Maine lobsters have been sustainable for hundreds of years and will continue to be sustainable.” He said the Marine Stewardship Council “has made sustainability a business, a money-generating business, whose charges result in an increased price.”

Maine’s Client Council is doing well to go slow in knuckling under to an expensive labeling proposition that does nothing for sustainability of the lobster industry.

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