ELLSWORTH, Maine — A multi-year effort to see if Maine’s lobster fishery might be listed as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council is nearing completion and appears likely to be approved, according to officials.
The assessment of Maine’s lobster fishery, which last year generated more than $330 million in direct revenue for commercial lobstermen, has been under way since 2008. Industry and state officials contacted this month said the London-based council is expected to make a final determination by next spring, if not sooner.
Some people in the industry have expressed skepticism about getting the fishery certified as sustainable by Marine Stewardship Council, saying that the fishery has long been known for its conservation practices and shouldn’t need an outside, nonprofit entity to make that determination.
Others have said such certification would be a valuable marketing tool that would help promote Maine lobster globally and make it competitive with other Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries such as Alaskan pollock, various Scandinavian cod fisheries, or rock lobster in western Australia.
Intertek Moody Marine, which is assessing the fishery on behalf of Marine Stewardship Council, has posted a draft report on the certification assessment online and is soliciting stakeholder comment about it.
Stakeholders can submit comments on the draft report until 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 2.
Landings of lobster in Maine, which make up the largest and most valuable commercial fishery in the state, have increased steadily over the past three decades. In 1990, Maine fishermen caught a total of 28 million pounds of lobster and cumulativelty were paid $61 million for their efforts.
In 2011, the statewide catch topped 100 million pounds for the first time and had a direct value to fishermen of $334 million.
Many industry leaders and observers credit practices that have been in place in Maine for decades for the steadily increasing lobster landings, which have occurred as catches in other fisheries such as groundfish, herring, scallops and shrimp have decreased dramatically. Unlike neighboring states and Canadian provinces, Maine long has maintained minimum and maximum catch sizes. For generations, Maine lobstermen also have cut small V-notch marks in the tails of egg-producing females and returned them to the water to ensure a future supply.
The collapse of many groundfish species populations, which are believed to be major predators of juvenile lobster, also have been cited as possible causes for the increase in lobster in the Gulf of Maine.
This past spring and summer, however, there was an unseasonal glut of soft-shell lobsters that many think was caused by unseasonably warm water in the Gulf of Maine. The glut caused the price fishermen earned to plummet to less than $2 per pound, which many think will result in another record landings total in 2012 as lobstermen try to make up in volume what they have lost in the per-pound price. The most recent year in which Maine lobstermen earned on average less than $2 per pound was 1980.
John Hathaway, owner of the lobster processing company Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, has been one of the main proponents of getting the Maine’s fishery certified by Marine Stewardship Council. Hathaway said that getting certified is not a guarantee for getting the per-pound price to go back up — it was consistently above $4 per pound from 2004 through 2007 — but it could help the Maine lobster fishery boost its market share in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. At the least, he said, it will help maintain the market share Maine lobster has already.
Consumer demand for sustainable-certified seafood is going up everywhere and in many places such certification is expected, he said. Maine’s lobster fishery may be sustainable already, but the world needs to know about it.
“How do we extend that message around the globe?” Hathaway said.
“[Marine Stewardship Council certification] is just another arrow in your quiver. The world’s going to know that your product is sustainable.”
David Cousens, president of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said recently that the group supports getting the fishery certified by Marine Stewardship Council. He said the association hopes that branding Maine lobster with the council label will help both boost the boat price and result in an increased volume of sales in places such as Europe, where there is high demand for sustainable-certified seafood, and through Walmart, which in 2006 indicated that it was developing a plan to buy all of its wild-caught fish only from fisheries that have been Marine Stewardship Council-certified.
“We need all the help we can get,” Cousens said. “This is the gold standard for certification, so we’ll try it and see how it works.”
Cousens said that if the fishery is certified, it will be up to dealers or processors to decide whether they want to label or market their products accordingly. The certification will not require fishermen or others in the industry to change what they already are doing, he said.
According to Hathaway, if Maine’s fishery is certified by Marine Stewardship Council, it will have to meet certain conditions within the first five years of certification in order to maintain it. According to the draft report’s summary, the fishery as a whole will have to:
• Develop at least a partial strategy — one that is expected to work and successfully is being implemented — for avoiding “serious or irreversible harm” to habitat.
• Demonstrate that long-term fishery objectives consistent with Marine Stewardship Council principles “are explicit within management policy.”
• Demonstrate that such objectives “are explicit within the fishery’s management system.”
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said recently that Maine’s lobster industry has long supported and pursued sustainable practices. DMR wants to pursue measures such as Marine Stewardship Council certification that will help create a distinctive brand for Maine lobster in the global market, he said.
“If it moves in that direction [of better branding of Maine lobster], then we are supportive [of Marine Stewardship Council certification],” he said.
Keliher added that DMR has been planning to develop long-term conservation objectives and goals for the fishery anyway, and so is not put off by the stated council conditions. The department has been actively involved in looking at how the use of submersible traps affects habitat, and it has accepted the likelihood that catch totals will not increase forever. Keliher said the department is planning a series of public meetings along the coast to begin a dialogue with fishermen about what the industry should do to prepare itself for the eventual decline in landings.
“Those are things we are already in the process of doing, so we are supportive of them,” Keliher said of the conditions.
As for the costs of being assessed and then of maintaining Marine Stewardship Council certification, Hathaway said fishermen will not be asked to help foot the bill. Hathaway estimated that the effort so far has cost between $250,000 and $300,000, all of which has been paid for through private donations. He said he has been told the additional costs of maintaining Marine Stewardship Council certification within the first five years could cost between $500,000 and $1 million, but added that this also will be funded solely through private donations. The state and fishermen will not be asked to contribute to any of these costs, he said.
Hathaway said there are a few more steps in the process before the council will make the final decision about whether to certify the fishery. Remaining steps he could recall off the top of his head include reviewing the submitted comments after Jan. 2 and a review by the council of the entire assessment process to make sure everything was done properly.
“We’re really hoping [Marine Stewardship Council will make an announcement] by the springtime,” Hathaway said.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.