September 17, 2013

PETA says Maine lobster processor has cruel 'kill' method

But it's unclear whether the practice is outside the industry's norms, and unproven that crustaceans feel pain.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

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This photo taken from a video shot by PETA shows a worker holding a lobster after its shell was removed while it was still alive.

Courtesy PETA


There are lobster processing methods that PETA considers humane.

Paden said PETA repeatedly approached the processing company in the video to talk about "alternative slaughtering methods," before deciding to go public with the video. "They were unresponsive," he said.

One method the group finds acceptable is to stun the lobsters, which kills any nerves and any ability to feel pain. A company called CrustaStun, based in the United Kingdom, makes commercial devices for use in processing facilities.

Several organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have concluded that stunning is the most humane and effective way to kill crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs.

A less common method is "high-pressure processing," in which lobsters are loaded into a giant, porous metal basket and lowered into a machine. The machine is filled with water and the pressure is increased to 87,000 pounds per square inch, about five times the pressure of the deepest part of the ocean. Lobsters die within six seconds.

At least one Maine processor, Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster, uses that method. The company calls its machine the "Big Mother Shucker."

Owner John Hathaway has recently expressed interest in leasing space in Portland to expand his lobster processing operation.

A commercial stunner costs about $150,000, Paden estimated, and a high-pressure processing unit would likely be even more expensive.

McAleney said stunning and high-pressure processing are still new technology in an old industry, and are very expensive. He said the lobster processing industry already is highly regulated, by state and federal officials.

"That's actually why we stopped processing," he said.


While most Maine residents buy and eat live lobster, only about 20 percent of lobster is sold live. The rest is processed and sold to restaurants, retailers, cruise ship lines and other buyers around the world.

Lobster is a multimillion-dollar industry for the state. In 2012, Maine lobstermen brought in a record catch of 127 million pounds, valued at $341 million.

The state processes an estimated 10 million to 12 million pounds of lobster at 14 licensed facilities. That's only about 10 percent of all lobster caught in the state. Nearly 70 percent is processed in Canada, which has more facilities.

In the past year, a concerted effort has been made to increase processing capacity in Maine. Many, including Gov. Paul LePage, have said that Maine is losing money and jobs by shipping the product to Canada for processing.


There has been longstanding debate over whether lobsters feel pain when they are killed.

Robert Elwood, a professor of animal behavior at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has studied crustaceans and said research has not proven that lobsters feel pain.

"Most people would agree that dogs and cats feel pain, but agreeing is not proof," Elwood said Monday. "Based on my research, I've seen reactions that are consistent with pain and that are not reflex responses."

Dr. Bj?Roth, an expert on the slaughter of crustaceans at the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fishery and Aquaculture, calls the killing method shown in the video cruel, "carving the animal alive," according to information provided by PETA.

Asked whether ripping claws off a live lobster is any different from dropping a lobster into boiling water, Elwood said the boiling water would certainly be a quicker death.

"With mammals and birds, we assume that they experience pain, so we've become mindful of that when we think about slaughter," he said.

In an email to the Press Herald, Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said, "Scientists have conducted multiple studies which show that lobsters do not feel pain as they do not have developed nervous systems."

McCarron could not be reached by phone Monday night.

Slaughterhouses for cattle, pigs and chickens have endured scrutiny historically for their practices. In some cases, the scrutiny has led to new industry standards.

Paden said PETA promotes a vegan lifestyle but is realistic about eating habits and doesn't expect lobster processing to end.

"If they are going to continue slaughtering animals in this fashion, we want them to be aware of alternative methods," he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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