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Fishing the Gulf of Maine: Tradition at a Crossroads

May 20th, 2013

By Michael Sanders

Lobster fishing remains big business off the coast of Maine but even with new regulations and new gadgets can it ever be sustainable? Michael Sanders investigates the real costs of the crustacean on your plate

An industry based largely on lobster monoculture is vulnerable to a crash

When most of us go down to the coast, whether to walk or swim or fish or sail, we take for granted what we see before us. We see the lobster boats and the colorful buoys marking the strings of traps, the bobbing green and red cans marking safe passage, the gulls and other seabirds. 

In the larger working harbors like Portland and Stonington and Port Clyde, there might be draggers tied up, unloading fish they’ve caught far out in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank. What we don’t realize is that this seemingly unchanging marine world is in fact always changing in ways both large and small.

What we think of as “the coast of Maine” - those 3,000 vaunted miles of rocky shoreline punctuated by seaside villages and docks and lobster pounds and fishing fleets - was largely built on the backs of the fishermen and lobstermen who are there, however picturesque or authentic to the eye, for a single purpose: to harvest the sea in order to feed us.

Those who go down to the sea to fish in the coming years will face challenges and issues which would never have seemed likely to their parents. Some developments are wholly positive, like innovations in fishing gear that lead to less wasteful fishing and advances in lobster processing that add value to the resource. The idea that Maine seafood, particularly lobster and lobster products, should be branded has growing support - and a few early ventures are already off the ground. 

In aquaculture, too, particularly penned salmon, but also oysters and mussels, advances in research and new opportunities are making this a viable alternative for the sons and daughters of today’s fishermen to become the next generation of sea-farmers as well as providing growing employment in counties that need it most.

Some of these challenges are going to be difficult. With the loss of waterfront fishing infrastructure to residential construction and non-marine uses, fishermen face numerous troubles from where to moor their boat in a harbor given over to yachts to growing expenses for bait and fuel, to complex new rules governing how and where they fish. 

Over all of these fisheries hangs the question of sustainability – in bait species such as herring, in cod and haddock and other groundfish stocks, even, over the long-term, of the in-shore lobster population itself.

1. The Problem of Bait

“In Maine,” Professor Bob Bayer, Executive Director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, told me, “herring is king. Generally, lobstermen use about one pound of bait to catch one pound of lobster.” For 2010, that would mean just under 100 million pounds of bait to catch a record 93 million pounds of lobster. “There have been periodic shortages over the last twenty years,” he continued, “which is why we’ve been developing alternatives. They include cowhide, tuna heads, salmon racks [skeletons], salmon skins, even freshwater species of fish from the Great Lakes.” The salmon baits, (byproducts of often-distant fish farms), must be cooked to kill any possible pathogens to avoid introducing them into Maine waters. Freshwater species pose the same “high risk of possible cross-contamination,” Bayer added, emphasising that these alternatives are either experimental or used infrequently, because herring, for most lobstermen, remains the preferred bait.

But is it efficient to, essentially, “farm” lobster by feeding them up on the odd chance you might catch them in a trap? “Herring is lipid-rich,” said Jonathan Grabowski, a benthic ecologist who studies links between herring, cod, and lobster at Northeastern Univerity's Marine Science Center, “it has a lot of scent to it to attract the lobsters and keep them there. Does bait enhance their growth rate and is it a substantial portion of their diet? Yes.” Also, “if you look at the cost of the bait versus the value of lobsters, it makes sense to feed them because it could be accounting for 15-20% of the landings [in enhanced growth of juvenile lobsters to legal limit], and that represents a substantial amount of money.” 

Last year, total lobster landings were worth $310 million, supporting about 6,000 lobstermen and their families, not including all the other economic activity generated around bait, fuel, and then the processors, restaurants, and wholesalers and retailers who sold on the transformed product.

If there are herring shortages because the lobster industry is so hungry for them, one might ask, why not just eat the herring? Isn’t this the marine equivalent of the don’t-eat-the-beef-eat-the-grain argument? 

Patrice McCarron, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, burst out laughing when I posed the question. “I have just one answer,” she said. “You come home from work. ‘You want herring or lobster for dinner, honey?’ your wife asks. Sure, we could eat herring, but it happens that here in Maine we don’t.”

2. Regulating Fisheries for Sustainability

In 2010, 95% of the 5 million pounds of Gulf of Maine ground fish caught by Maine boats—the haddock, flounder, halibut, cod, grey sole, redfish, and other species—was landed at the Portland Fish Exchange, a third of whose space is now rented out. “Back in the early ‘90s,” Bert Jongerden, General Manager, told me, “we handled about 30 million pounds of fish per year. We had close to 350 boats selling us their catch.” He laughed bitterly, adding, “…too much of a good thing. By then, overfishing was occurring. Today, we have 20-25 boats landing their catch, with maybe 40 more trucking it in.”

In the Gulf of Maine, the New England Fisheries Management Council enforces the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, under which the US manages its fisheries. Since the early ‘90s, the blunt instrument that NEFMC has used to address overfishing has been limiting days at sea (DAS). A simplified example: a boat permitted 180 days with few limits on any species in the mid-‘90s might have fished just 30 in 2009, with limits on total catch, on some species per trip, and with some fishing grounds closed. The owner could lease or purchase the rights of other fishermen to fish, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, but such debt made for an ever-riskier proposition. There were also safety issues, as boats raced en masse to the fishing grounds when the season opened every May and fished in all weathers, while wide price fluctuations resulted when the boats returned.

“That clock started ticking as soon as you left the dock,” said Terry Alexander, from Cundy’s Harbor. “We had trip limits, too,” he added, “so you could catch only 4,000 pounds of cod a trip. After 4,000 pounds, we started throwing them away, ‘discards’, they’re called” while carrying on fishing for other species on which they hadn’t yet reached their limits. (Some species, like cod and haddock, swim together.)

DAS was broken, and, thus, “sector management” was born. The proposition was initially a bit frightening for independent-minded fishermen. “If the fishermen organize,” NEFMC’s Tom Nies Nies elaborated, “into [a sector], and the sector agrees to a limit on how much fish it catches each year, then we’ll exempt the sector from some of these other controls. You can land whatever you want today as long as you don’t catch more than this amount in a given year. It works because you can keep your costs down.” 

Sectors facilitate much more efficient fishing by aggregating small, individual catch shares into larger pools. If Terry Alexander goes out for cod, he knows he’s going to catch some haddock. It’s a matter of logging onto the sector website to see who else might have haddock allocation he can trade or buy if he has run through his own. It no longer matters who in the sector catches what on any given trip as long as the group’s totals stay below the sector’s allocation of each species.

In the 2010-2011 season, a majority of the Gulf of Maine groundfish fleet fished under sectors, with those who opted out falling into “the common pool” under DAS regulations. 

Glen Libby is president of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a mid-coast fishermen’s cooperative, and part of the Port Clyde sector. “Now,” he told me, “there is an economic incentive for people to fish cleanly and reduce discards. Sector management rewards you for adopting concepts like using a larger mesh net to reduce your discards. Since discards are subtracted from their next year’s quota, fishermen think more about what they’re doing. We’re learning ways to communicate and do things collectively.”

In the first year of sectors, “we did reduce catches,” said NEMFC’s Nies, “and there is preliminary evidence that we reduced discards, particularly on species we had catch limits on, like Gulf of Maine cod.”

Looming over this rosy outcome, however, are the administrative costs of the new regulations. The total value of the fishery is from $65-$75 million/year, Jongerden pointed out. “And they’re going to spend $45 million to regulate it?” Though much of this taxpayer-financed budget is for one-time development, there are substantial continuing costs. The at-sea and dockside monitors alone cost $7 million this year, a portion soon to be paid by the fishermen.

Some fishermen, like Rob Odlin who’s fished out of Portland since age 14, feel like they had their hands forced. “I started in the common pool last year,” he told me, “because I thought I could do okay just buying more days-at-sea. My cod limit was 800lbs /day and when it dropped to 100 lbs my profit nearly ended. It’s death by a thousand cuts. I’m in the situation where I hope I can lease [the right to catch] fish and then sell the fish for three times that money. Sometimes you pay a buck and you only get $1.20.” Odlin now fishes in a sector.

3. New Technology, New Gear…New Era?

As scientists like Steve Eayrs of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute have come to better understand fish behavior, fishing nets and gear have undergone redesigns incorporating that knowledge. “Haddock often tend to rise in the trawl mouth and other species tend to stay close to the seabed,” he began in explaining one example, called a separator trawl. Think of a trawl net as a long, rectangular cone of netting, open at the end nearest the boat and closed at the rear, called the “cod end”, where the captured fish collect. Now imagine it is divided into two sections horizontally. “What happens as the fish reach the trawl,” Eayr explained, “is that haddock tend to rise upwards, while cod and flounder stay close to the sea bed. You can leave the lower cod end open if you don’t want to catch cod and flounder, while the top will catch the rising haddock. 

Now that fishermen go to sea with allocations, they want to avoid species they can’t keep,” and, while not perfect, the separator net is a step forward.

Another huge success is the Nordmore Grate, a large, grate-like structure inserted into a shrimp net designed to exclude from the trawl fish larger than the shrimp. Eayrs said, “many shrimp fisheries around the world, particularly tropical fisheries, capture significant amounts of by-catch. Sometimes by-catch dominates and very few shrimp are caught. We put observers on boats using this net for Maine shrimp and saw by-catch well below 5% of the total catch, sometimes as low as 2%, which is remarkable.” 

As impressive is the Gearnet initiative, a cooperative program of New England state fisheries organizations, GMRI and other research groups, and NOAA which allows fishermen to borrow selective gear and be trained in its use so that they may understand its efficacy first before paying the tens of thousands of dollars a single net may cost.

While the lobster trap hasn’t changed in a few generations, the processing and marketing end of that business has lately been pulled into the 21st century by its own innovators.“It looks,” McCarron of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association told me, “like Maine will have 6 lobster processors working within the next year, double what we’ve had.” Partly driving this trend is new technology, but also a rising consciousness at all levels of the industry that new products sold in new ways in new markets will ultimately raise the currently very low boat price to a sustainable level. 

One innovator, Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, has adapted a two-story, 40-ton High Pressure Processing (HPP) machine developed to sterilize packs of lunch meat for meat packers into a fast, efficient, sanitary, and humane lobster processor they call "The Big Mother Shucker". Water at pressures up to 87,000psi is injected into a sealed steel tank containing live lobsters, killing them instantly but also killing any pathogens in the flesh. Unlike normally processed frozen cooked lobster meat, which contains microbes that spoil it quickly, HPP-treated frozen raw meat lasts up to 18 months.

"Lobster is one of the last foods we eat,” Charlie Langston, Shucks’ COO, told me, “that you have to kill in your kitchen." This, naturally, limits its market. CEO John Hathaway added, "We think that the market for live lobster is in decline. It’s not like more of the world is demanding live Maine lobster. What they want is great prepared lobster whether from a great chef or from a retail location.”  Hathaway also pointed out that raising the demand for what he firmly believes is a sustainable resource is only a good thing for the lobsterman, too, as it raises the boat price in the long term.

HPP also solves a fundamental processing problem--getting the lobster meat out of the shell without cooking it, because cooking, freezing, then reheating makes for a less delicate texture and short shelf life. After HPP, the lobster’s tail section and the meat, down to the delicate fan-shaped swimmerets, slide out in one piece. Claw and knuckle meat, though you of course have to crack the shell, also emerge in whole pieces.

4. Branding: This Lobster Brought to You by the State of Maine

What’s new in frozen seafood? Lobster mac n’ cheese, lobster pie, lobster chowder, and other products from Calendar Island, Hancock Gourmet, Claw Island, Fresh Maine, and Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine. These Maine companies, many new entrants, want to sell you Maine on a microwave tray, whenever and wherever you want to eat it and, increasingly, in a huge variety of dishes.

Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, a cooperative of mid-coast lobstermen in partnership with investors like the Stonewall Kitchen founders, takes the Shucks product one step further. “We offer Maine lobster we caught,” said President John Jordan, “in a gourmet package, high quality prepared dishes, something easy for people so they can have a great experience at home that doesn’t have to be the traditional boiled lobster dinner.” Jordan and his group are out to satisfy that consumer “who wants to know where her food really comes from,” Jordan explained, “but who also wants to feel good that they’re directly supporting the fishing families who caught it.”

A more local model is Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a group of ground fishermen and lobstermen selling wholesale but also an increasingly directly to about 400 families in mid-coast communities. Each share costs about $300 for twelve weeks, a basket of between 1½ to 3½ pounds of various fish fillets, crab, and shrimp. “We can pay our fishermen more,” Glen Libby pointed out, “because we’re not sending the fish to Portland, and because we reduce the number of people who have to handle it. That’s 15-20% of it right there. And we’re more efficient. Squid used to be by-catch we threw away, and now we sell it like almost everything that comes through the harbor.”

5. Can Aquaculture Save the Maine Fishing Industry?

While the value of the groundfish catch was about $5 million last year, salmon raised in pens in three Downeast locations fetched a whopping $76 million, or 17% of the entire value of all species caught or raised in Maine waters last year. 

Sebastian Belle, longtime Executive Director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, has seen a young industry grow hugely, get into difficulty, then push past those initial troubles (a devastating infectious salmon anemia outbreak five years ago) to a more sustainable but still growing future. “Our most important aquaculture products,” he told me, “are salmon, mussels, and oysters, and after that, codfish and halibut.” What is truly exciting to Belle, however, is that every year, his organization has grown. “Over 90% of my new members are actually ex-commercial fishermen or the sons and daughters of commercial fishermen. The reason for that is very simple – it’s the only way they can continue to make a living on the water. They can’t get a lobster permit, they can’t get a groundfish permit, they can’t get a scallop permit.”

A real advantage, too, is geographical, he pointed out, and this translates into real money. “Prices for Maine-grown mussels and oysters and salmon are typically between 10 and 20% higher than any equivalent except organic product coming in from Europe. We harvest something and put it on a truck, and it’s at the consumer within 24 hours, so we have a huge shelf life advantage over any imports.” 

Another plus, Belle continued, is that aquaculture operations tend to vertically integrate, establishing on-site processors, which means local jobs. Cooke Aquaculture, a family-owned operation out of New Brunswick, invested $60 million in their Maine-based salmon operation in 2007, then re-opened a shuttered processing plant in 2008. “That plant employs 150 people in Machiasport. Machiasport,´ he repeated for emphasis, “with benefits! That’s huge. It’s also the first fish processing plant opened in the state in the last 12 years.”

Conclusion: The Long View May Be Gloomy

Lobstermen worry about abundant lobster; Ground fishermen worry about abundant cod and haddock. Bert Jongerden worries about the migration of boats south, selling their catch to Gloucester or Boston because those ports are closer to fishing grounds and more hospitable, economically. John Hathaway worries about Shucks cracking the all-important Asian market and how to get the Chinese to stop calling his product “Boston Lobster”.

Patrice McCarron worries about wharves turning into condos and marine diesel cresting $4/gallon. Glen Libby worries about how to run a new business on a new model with many partners. Sebastian Belle worries about runoff from coastal development degrading water quality, red tide, and angry neighbors who don’t approve of salmon pens in their viewshed. Tom Nies of NEFMC worries about budget cuts and groundfish populations.

But who, one may ask, is worrying about the big picture? The health of the whole of the Gulf of Maine, and not just those concerns looming over their own particular backyard? One man who has been studying this complex ecosystem for his whole career is Dr. Robert Steneck, of the University of Maine. He is plainspoken and even brutal in his assessment of the current health of the Gulf. 

“Abundant organisms of the past,” Steneck noted, “that are now rare (cod) and rare organisms that are now abundant (lobsters) are symptoms of an ecosystem way out of balance. Older lobstermen remember coastal Maine when it was diverse.  They didn't depend on one species.” He went on to point out just how difficult it would be to remedy the situation. “Adding predators to the Gulf of Maine,” he said, “is similar to asking a factory worker to take a pay cut to insure job security.”

An industry based largely on lobster monoculture, Steneck implies, is one vulnerable to a crash. Lest one be too wowed by record Maine harvests, Massachusetts, which had healthy lobster landings as recently as a decade ago, is now contemplating the unthinkable in view of recent devastating population projections and terrible harvests. For the first time, state fishery authorities are considering a total moratorium on lobstering. 

Can you imagine a Maine without lobster?

This story originally appeared in a different form in Downeast Magazine.

Michael Sanders has been living and writing in Maine, USA for almost twenty years. His previous books about food, including From Here, You Can’t See Paris and Families of the Vine, focus on the farmers, winemakers, and chefs of southwest France and chefs of Maine. He has also written for the New York Times, Saveur, Afar, Gourmet, and Downeast, and is a founding member of Slow Food Portland. His work in recent years, including this book and the creation of Table Arts Media, reflects a personal realization that “write local” is just as powerful a phrase as “eat local”, particularly as he lives in a place bursting with stories. Discover more of Michael’s work at www.michaelssanders.com and www.tableartsmedia.com.

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