If you like lobster – and care about maintaining the fishery as both a cultural and economic resource in Maine – should you care what it ate before it made it to your plate?

Lobsters get a bad rap for being scavengers, says veterinarian scientist Robert C. Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute in Orono. In fact, they have rather discerning chemosensory apparatus housed in the short antennae on their heads and tiny sensing hairs all over their bodies.

With a sense of smell more akin to a dog’s than a human’s, lobsters can sniff out a single amino acid that tags their favorite food. For Maine lobsters, that’s herring. So lobstermen favor it as bait up and down the coast.

In 2016 the state’s lobster fishery hit record numbers in volume (over 130 million pounds) and value ($530 million). With so many traps in play, herring became the second-most valuable fishery in Maine, weighing in at $19 million last year. The hike in its value corresponded with the demand from hungry lobsters just as there was a drop off in herring landings in New England.

Earlier this month, interstate marine fisheries regulators approved new rules to avoid another bait shortage. To space out the catch, herring fishermen are now subject to a weekly limit on the amount they can bring to shore. Bayer says it takes one pound of herring to produce one pound of lobster. That same input/output ratio, when used in fin fish aquaculture, has been rendered an unsustainable practice.

Christine Burns Rudalevige drops the redfish into the pot with seafood stock, sherry and diced veggies. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Herring is what Maine lobsters know and love because they grew up eating it, Bayer explains. But that is not to say they can’t be enticed to eat other, more sustainable foodstuffs.

In fact, lobsters are omnivores who find available foods and consume them selectively, judiciously eating them at rates that fulfill their need for a balanced diet of protein, fat, calcium and phosphorous. Indigenous delicacies include plankton, sea worms, crabs, urchins and small fish, while other baits have included redfish racks, tuna heads, East Coast menhaden and West Coast rockfish.

To meet the demand of the lobster industry, bait is now sourced from all over the world, a logistical fact that raises serious biosecurity and human health issues, says Richard A. Wahle, research professor at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole. “What are the risks of introducing microbes and pathogens to our local water of bringing rockfish racks from the Pacific into Atlantic waters?”

As the Maine lobster fishery is one of the most well managed in the world, scientists and state regulators pay close attention to these potential issues. The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) issues permits to all bait dealers and conducts a thorough review of any new bait before it can be introduced to Gulf of Maine waters. The DMR has banned horseshoe crabs from Asia because they would carry invasive species with them; Pacific sardines because they harbor exotic pathogens; and cobia from the South Atlantic Ocean because the status of the pathogens they could transfer are unknown.

Christine Burns Rudalevige adds Smiling Hills Farm cream into a pot with toasted lobster shells and fennel to make the cream base for her lobster, redfish and fennel stew. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“Consumers should feel good about the process. It is in place to protect them and ensure the future health of the lobster fishery,” said Jeff Nichols, DMR’s director of communications.

For the last 30 years, Bayer has been formulating bait alternatives – aromatic substances made of soy, cattle hide, grain and/or fishmeal that typically arrive at the dock in a 5-gallon bucket and get put into the bait bag with an ice cream scoop. These conglomerations, which must be approved by the FDA and have attracted lobsters with varying degrees of success, can be used solo or mixed with herring to help stretch its usefulness.

“Another possible answer (to the herring problem) would be to use less bait,” says Bayer, recognizing this measure might be unpopular with lobstermen who bank on their tried and true (and sometimes proprietary) techniques for baiting traps. Bayer points to a 2011 study conducted by Maddelyn Harden, a former University of Maine graduate student, which showed that using less bait in a trap did not reduce the lobster haul in the long run.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association President Dave Cousens, participating in a forum hosted by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in March, says he’s in favor of cutting the number of lobster traps dropped in the Gulf of Maine by half. “You’d use half the fuel and half the bait, and I think you’d haul in the same amount of lobsters,” Cousens said. But he knows very well his is the minority view in his association.

Bayer says because lobsters live in the wild, consumers looking to eat as sustainably as possible can’t select a “greener” lobster based on what it has eaten – like, for example, they can do when they buy certified grass-fed beef. But by understanding the role bait plays in sustaining a successful fishery, eaters can be more in tune to its ebbs and flows.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special” (Islandport Press, May 2017). Contact her at: [email protected]

Lobster, redfish and fennel stew. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

LOBSTER, REDFISH AND FENNEL STEW

My dad is partial to lobster stew and seeks it out on most of his visits to Maine. With this recipe, I honor his request but also slip in some redfish to spur conversation about sustainable seafood.

Serves 4

2 cooked lobsters

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 cups heavy cream

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup small-diced potato

1/2 cup small-diced onion

1/2 cup small-diced fennel

1/2 cup small-diced tomato

1/4 cup dry white wine, sherry or brandy

4 cups seafood stock

4 redfish fillets

Salt and pepper

Oyster crackers

Crack the lobster shells and extract the tail, claw and knuckle meat, chop it into 1/2-inch chunks and reserve. Remove the gills and inner organs from the lobster abdomen shells and compost, but keep the shells.

Put the fennel seeds in a 4-quart saucepan and place it over medium heat. Toast the seeds until they are just fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add the lobster shells and cream to the pan. Heat the cream to just below a simmer and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

In an 8-quart pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the potatoes, onion, fennel and tomato. Stir to coat the vegetables with fat. Sauté until the onions are translucent, 3-4 minutes.

Add the wine and continue to cook until the liquid is reduced by half, 3-4 minutes. Add the seafood stock and bring to it to a simmer. Slide the redfish fillets into the simmering broth. Cook until the fish is opaque, 2-3 minutes.

Add the reserved lobster meat. Strain the cream into the pot. Compost the shells and fennel seeds.

Gently heat the stew. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot, garnished with parsley and oyster crackers.