Industry seeks "eco-label" for Maine lobster
PORTLAND, Maine - The Maine lobster industry has long been held up as a well-run fishery. Now it's seeking a seal of approval to prove it.
Efforts are under way to have the state's signature seafood certified as sustainable by an international organization that evaluates fishing practices worldwide. With consumers demanding more "green" food products, the lobster industry stands to lose out if it doesn't get certified, supporters say.
"It'll open up a lot of markets for us," said John Hathaway, owner of Shucks Maine Lobster processing company in Richmond. "If we don't do it, we'll probably lose markets."
The London-based Marine Stewardship Council has been in the business of encouraging responsible fishing practices since 1997. Fisheries that are certified as "sustainable" can use the council's blue eco-label, a seal that assures consumers that the seafood was not overfished or harvested in a way that harms the ocean.
The MSC has now certified 26 separate fisheries around the world, and nearly 1,200 seafood products carry the group's label.
A growing number of retailers and restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has pledged that, in the next few years, all wild-caught seafood it sells in its North American stores will be certified as sustainable. Other US chains, including Whole Foods Market Inc., Target Corp., and Costco Wholesale Corp., have committed to the program in varying degrees.
It's hard to ignore heavy-hitters like those, said Linda Bean, owner of Port Clyde Lobster.
"We're convinced that the demand for Maine lobster will be greatly affected if won't do this," she said. "We'll be out of the loop."
Maine is the nation's lobster breadbasket, accounting for about 80 percent of the 90 million or so pounds of American lobsters -- the type of with big claws and tails -- caught each year in waters off the Northeast. American lobster was the single most valuable U.S. fishery in 2006, worth $395 million, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Gov. John Baldacci has appointed a task force to pursue the MSC certification for lobsters caught in Maine. Its members are Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe; Hathaway; and Bean, granddaughter of L.L. Bean, who founded the outdoor apparel company that bears his name.
Hathaway and Bean plan to soon start raising funds privately to pay for a third-party company to evaluate the harvesting practices, regulatory regime and science of the lobster fishery. The assessment will be submitted to the MSC for approval. The process will probably take more than a year.
If approved, Maine lobster would join other certified fisheries that run the gamut from cod and haddock to shrimp and salmon. The list ranges from large fisheries such as Alaskan salmon and Bering Sea pollock to the tiny Thames River herring and Burry Inlet cockle fisheries, in the United Kingdom. Among lobster, the Western Australia rock lobster and Mexican Baja California spiny lobster fisheries have been certified.
Maine's lobster fishery, which was valued at about $250 million last year, is often cited as a model fishery. There are trap limits and rules that ban catching lobsters that are too small and too big, along with egg-bearing females.
Having an ecolabel certification would allow the industry to promote those harvest practices.
If given the choice between an Australian lobster with an MSC seal or a Maine lobster without, consumers might go for the certified product, said Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. And chefs at upscale restaurants could be more inclined to put certified seafood products on their menu.
"As people become more aware, there will be more demand for seafood that is certified," he said.
Other fisheries have seen an uptick in demand after being certified. A small North Pacific albacore tuna fishery has expanded its markets in the U.S. and Europe since being certified in December, said Natalie Webster of the American Albacore Fishing Association in San Diego.
Certification has been a lifeline for the 25 or so families on the West coast that are involved in the fishery, Webster said.
"Now our fishery's future is so much brighter," she said.
Maine lobster could also benefit, MSC spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin said from the group's Seattle office.
"Maine lobster is such an iconic seafood," Coughlin said. "If they're able to achieve certification ... it'll be important to seafood buyers around the world."
Lapointe, the DMR commissioner, said many lobstermen see the program as a way to boost demand -- and prices -- for their product. Others, though, see it as a potential source of more paperwork.
"I think it's a smart thing looking forward," Lapointe said. "If a train's leaving the station that you think's important, try to pay attention to it." (AP)