STONINGTON, Maine — Local municipal and lobster industry officials are looking into whether better handling, and better taste, could help boost the demand and value of Stonington’s signature seafood product.

The project, which will include research into handling practices and possible marketing opportunities for lobster landed in Stonington, is being funded in part by a $73,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The town of Stonington — which was the state’s top port in 2011 for commercial fish landings value, with lobster as the dominant species — is contributing $7,000 to the effort.

One aspect of the research effort that could have statewide implications is how fishermen and dealers might be able to reduce the amount of lobster that is lost to “shrinkage,” which is industry-speak for mortality. Lobsters must be kept alive until right before they are cooked, so any that die before they arrive at a kitchen or processing line have to be discarded.

Such losses reduce the amount of money fishermen, dealers and others get for their investment, and result in more lobster being taken out of the ocean than the industry needs — though what kind of effect this might have on the overall resource is debatable. According to Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics, lobster landings in Maine have consistently increased since the 1990s. In 2011, for the first time ever, the annual statewide catch of lobster exceeded 100 million pounds.

According to Robin Alden, executive director of Penobscot East Resource Center, the dramatic increase in landings over the past 20-plus years may have contributed to the amount of shrinkage in the industry. Older fishermen who developed their habits in the 1970s and 1980s, when annual statewide catches consistently hovered around 20 million pounds, tend to handle lobsters more gingerly than younger fishermen, she said.

It’s easy to take your time when you handle only a few hundred pounds of lobster each day, but when you haul, band and transport more than a thousand pounds of lobster on a daily basis, the temptation is to work quickly, which often results in rougher treatment, according to Alden.

“The physical issue of handling all these live lobsters in the market chain is daunting,” she said.

Holly Eaton of PERC is coordinating the handling research portion of the study. She said Friday that rough handling of lobsters stresses the animals, which can lead to poor health and death before they reach their final destination. Appearance also is a significant aspect to the value of lobster, she said, so when rough handling leads to a lost claw or damaged snout, it can affect the value of the catch.

“Treat it like an egg,” Eaton said of the advice she gives fishermen. “You never know when it might break.”

Eaton said PERC hopes to work with around half a dozen local lobstermen and with local dealer Greenhead Lobster to try out different handling techniques. One thing they expect to experiment with, she said, is lining banding stations on boats with seaweed, which is cheap and plentiful. Seaweed can provide cushioning for the lobster as fishermen secure their claws with elastic bands and can keep them cool and damp until the banded lobsters are placed in the boat’s holding tank.

She expects to explore ways to improve aeration, filtration and water flow in holding tanks, how lobsters are stacked into crates and how those crates are handled as they are off-loaded from boats and placed onto trucks. If lobsters are placed in crates right-side up and all facing the same directions, as opposed to facing each other, they get less stressed out than they otherwise would be. Lobsters are not accustomed to being piled on top of each other, she said.

“We’re trying some things and seeing if we can detect a difference,” Eaton said. “[The fishermen] may have ideas no one else has thought of.”

Matthew Skolnikoff, economic development director for the town, said Friday that the town would like to boost demand specifically for lobster landed in Stonington. Already, he said, there is some demand among top restaurant chefs for lobster landed specifically in Stonington, rather than elsewhere in Maine or outside the state. The town is interested in exploring whether there might be small-scale processing opportunities for products labeled “made with Stonington lobster,” he added.

Skolnikoff said that some taste tests have indicated that Stonington lobster actually tastes better than lobster caught elsewhere.

Skolnikoff acknowledged that other Maine ports might dispute this claim, and he said that local marketing efforts in Stonington would complement, rather than undermine, efforts by Linda Bean and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council to better market Maine lobster in general.

Given the recent lobster glut and the depressing effect it has had on lobster prices, it only makes sense for fishermen or even ports to pursue their own marketing initiatives so that, rather than being treated like a commodity, their local product can fetch more of a premium, he said.

“I anticipate a lot of places are going to do this,” Skolnikoff said of locally driven marketing efforts. “Our brand will hopefully be the first and strongest.”

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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....