International council certifies Maine lobster fishery as sustainable

A lobster bound for the table at the 65th annual Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland on Wednesday August 1, 2012.
A lobster bound for the table at the 65th annual Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland on Wednesday August 1, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted March 10, 2013, at 1:11 p.m.
Last modified March 10, 2013, at 5:58 p.m.

BOSTON — After more than five years of having its practices audited by outside observers, Maine’s lobster industry officially has achieved a status that it hopes will help boost demand and prices for its product.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage, attending the annual International Boston Seafood Show, announced Sunday that the industry has been certified as “sustainable” by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

According to a prepared statement released by state officials, MSC certification of Maine’s iconic lobster industry is expected to help with a new marketing push for the industry.

“The Marine Stewardship Council is the premier international certification program for wild-capture fisheries,” Maine Department of Marine Resources officials wrote in the statement. “MSC certification is the only seafood certification program that meets all the major international standards on sustainable fishing, ecosystem protection, and eco-labeling. Currently, more than 100 fisheries worldwide are MSC certified.”

The state lobster fishery had one of its most tumultuous seasons in recent memory in 2012 when fishermen caught an unusually large amount of soft-shell lobsters in the spring and early summer, at a time when the North American lobster distribution network is ill-prepared for handling large volumes of live lobster from Maine. The glut caused prices that fishermen earned for their catch to plummet temporarily to their lowest levels in decades and led to blockades of imported Maine lobster by Canadian fishermen in New Brunswick.

But despite those problems, Maine lobstermen caught a record volume of 126 million pounds of lobster last year, which is considered a sign that the health of the resource is in good shape — unlike other commercially harvested marine species such as urchins or groundfish that have seen their landings decline sharply in the past 20 years. The cumulative landings also had a record value of nearly $339 million but, due to the exceptionally high volume, the average annual price that fishermen earned was $2.69 per pound, their lowest such average since 1994.

“This certification recognizes our long-standing practices of good stewardship and ensures that every lobster caught in Maine waters can be marketed not only as delicious, healthy food, but also as a resource that meets the most stringent international environmental standard for seafood sustainability,” LePage said in DMR’s statement. “This places greater emphasis on the need for effective marketing and highlights the unique marketing advantage MSC certification provides.”

LePage added that MSC certification should open new markets to Maine lobster worldwide and provide to consumers traceability of the state’s signature seafood back to Maine, “no matter where in the world they end up.”

According to state officials, fisheries seeking MSC certification are assessed on a rigorous set of standards that consider the health of the fish stock, marine ecosystem protection and the effectiveness of fishery management. There are 31 performance indicators used by accredited independent, third-party certification bodies to evaluate a fishery applying for certification, the officials said.

John Hathaway, owner of the lobster processing company Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, has been one of the main proponents of pursuing MSC certification. He has said that getting Maine lobster certified is not a guarantee for getting the per-pound price that fishermen earn 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.

“[MSC certification] is just another arrow in your quiver,” Hathaway previously said. “The world’s going to know that your product is sustainable.”

According to industry officials, the certification is not expected to require lobstermen to change their fishing practices or to force dealers or processors to change the way they do business.

Hathaway has said that fishermen have not been asked to pay for the certification review, which he estimated to cost around $300,000, and will not be asked to help pay to maintain it. All of the costs of certification, in both achieving it and keeping it, will be covered through private donations, according to the processor.

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