Though it has long been regarded as one of the more sustainable fisheries on the planet, Maine’s lobster industry is considering whether it should try to make itself look even greener.

To ensure that Maine lobster keeps up with changing consumer demands, some lobster industry representatives hope to have the fishery certified as sustainable by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

Wal-Mart is one of the driving forces behind this interest. In 2006, the retail giant said that by 2011 it would buy all of its wild-caught fish only from fisheries that have been MSC-certified. If Maine’s lobster industry wants to include Wal-Mart among its buyers, certification advocates say, it will have to get its fishery management methods officially endorsed by MSC.

But not everyone in the industry thinks it should rely on someone else to be the official arbiter of something already widely regarded as fact.

Jon Carter of Bar Harbor, a member of the state’s Lobster Advisory Council, is one of several Maine fishermen who have publicly expressed reservations about MSC certification. At a recent lobster industry meeting in Saint John, New Brunswick, Carter said certification could be good but that he opposes having it done by an outside group. The problem is that such a group could later revoke certification, he said, which could leave the industry in worse shape than if it had never been certified.

“The American lobster fishermen are afraid of this process,” Carter told his Canadian counterparts. “We could work together [to promote] North American lobsters and certify ourselves.”

John Hathaway, owner of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond and head of a group of industry representatives interested in pursuing MSC certification, said recently that he understands the apprehension felt by Carter and other fishermen.

Self-certification programs, however, can be prohibitively expensive, he said. The Alaskan salmon industry spends $12 million a year to promote the sustainability of its fishery. By comparison, MSC certification is estimated to cost about $150,000 to achieve and between $25,000 and $50,000 a year to maintain, he said.

The intent in Maine is to get certified without having fishermen or taxpayers contribute a dime, according to Hathaway, and without making fishermen follow any conservation measures beyond what they do already. The cost, he said, is well worth the price of adapting to the marketplace and giving consumers what they want. Without certification from a widely accepted authority such as MSC, Maine could end up seeing demand for its signature seafood product steadily decrease.

“It seems like a good return on your money to me,” Hathaway said. Sustainability certification “is obviously the trend. This is where restaurants and retailers are going.”

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said recently that the only potential benefit to certification she sees is if it protects or increases the market share of Maine lobster. If there’s not a tangible payoff, she said, it probably isn’t worth it.

As for the industry certifying itself, McCarron said it has tried self-promotion campaigns before with little success. Even though lobster is harvested sustainably in Maine, spending money to promote this information has had little effect, she said.

“I honestly don’t think it is of value in the market,” she said of self-certification.

According to McCarron, Maine’s lobster industry already has completed MSC’s pre-assessment review and so far no red flags have come up. MSC does consider whether a fishery adversely affects nontarget species, such as the entanglement threat that lobster gear poses to whales, she said, but as long as the fishery is compliant with its applicable regulations and is trying to address any bycatch issues, MSC generally is willing to certify that fishery as sustainable.

MSC-hired consultants are expected to come to Maine later this spring to fully evaluate the lobster fishery. The group is expected to decide by the end of the year whether Maine’s lobster industry is qualified for its sustainability label.


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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....