August 12, 2012

Our View: State should promote 'sustainable' lobster

Maine-based processing won't increase unless new markets are developed for Maine lobster.

Even if the lobster war between the United States and Canada never turns hot, this summer's cross-border trade dispute exposes some issues that threaten one of Maine's most prominent industries and that won't be going away. It's going to require new business strategies to prevent persistent low prices from doing permanent damage to an essential element of the Maine brand.

What's happened this year is that lobsters shed their skins sooner than they had in the past, resulting in a glut of soft-shell lobsters coming off the boats this spring and summer. "Shedders" don't travel as well as hard-shell lobsters so they don't attract as high a price. They have to be eaten locally or processed, usually in Canada. Low-priced American lobsters coming in from Maine sparked protests from Canadian fishermen, who want their government to keep prices high.

Maine lobstermen should be asking for some help too, but not the ultimately self-destructive trade barriers sought by their Canadian counterparts. If Maine does not improve its ability to process and market Maine lobster worldwide, crises like this summer's will become an annual event.

The early shedding season appears to be a result of warmer water, and that is expected to be a long-term trend. Mainers and their visitors will never eat enough lobster to make up for the loss of the live in-the-shell trade that has made the state famous. The easy answer is in-state processing, and the fact that Maine has only three such plants (while there are 24 in eastern Canada) makes expanding in that area a logical next step. But Maine's few processors say they would buy more product if they had a place to sell it. The state could do much more to develop the market in order to stimulate demand for processed Maine lobster meat.

One area that has not been adequately pursued is the sustainable nature of the Maine lobster trap fishery. Maine lobstermen can pull up lobsters without hurting them and throw them back if they are too small or if they are females identified as good breeders. This means that, unlike other fisheries that can threaten a species with extinction, Maine lobstermen are protecting the resource even as the annual harvest increases.

Lobstermen have an uneasy relationship with some environmental groups over the impact their trap lines have on migrating marine mammals. But that should not stop the industry from embracing and promoting its "green" qualities.

There is a worldwide market for sustainable products and Maine industry and government should fight to get Maine's lobster certified as sustainable and promote its sale. That would not only mean moving more product, but being able to charge more for it.

And, as crazy as it may sound to Mainers, there are people who are uncomfortable about the idea of killing their food. They may not be willing to bring home a live lobster that can crawl across the floor, but would be happy to take home picked meat, raw or precooked.

To develop these markets, the state will have to do more than just make vague promises about improving the business climate. Celebrating sustainable Maine lobster and promoting the use of the processed meat as a luxury product should be a top priority of the state's economic development organization.

Gov. Paul LePage has shown that he knows how to draw attention to himself. He should take advantage of his ability to grab the spotlight and use it in a way that would benefit the state. Acting as a spokesman for an iconic Maine product instead of just telling the world how terrible things are here would be a good start.

Increasing demand is the only way to maintain prices and continue to employ people in Maine's coastal communities. Removing the barriers in Canadian processing plants won't solve the problem. Maine needs to promote this homegrown industry and it should do so before it's too late.

Maine lobstermen can pull up lobsters without hurting them and throw them back if they are too small or if they are females identified as good breeders. This means ... Maine lobstermen are protecting the resource even as the annual harvest increases.


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