People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, citing concerns that lobsters feel pain, has lodged a complaint with the Hancock County district attorney over handling practices at Maine Fair Trade Lobster processing plant in Gouldsboro, saying that they violate Maine's animal cruelty laws. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Five years after it sought to have charges filed against a Rockland lobster processing plant, an animal rights group that has repeatedly raised concerns about alleged animal cruelty in Maine’s signature seafood industry has lodged a complaint against a Gouldsboro seafood processor.

In a complaint sent to Hancock County District Attorney Matthew Foster, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says it recorded an undercover video of the alleged mistreatment at the Maine Fair Trade Lobster plant on Oct. 1. PETA has posted the video on its website.

The video shows lobsters being dismembered, with some sets of legs continuing to move after they’ve been separated from the rest of the body. In a six-page letter sent to police and prosecutors, the group notes that some overseas authorities have concluded lobsters can feel pain and that some countries have banned boiling them alive.

PETA wrote that the processor “mutilates and tortures fully conscious lobsters, causing them unjustifiable pain and suffering by tearing off their claws, puncturing their shells, and ripping their abdomens and tails from their heads” and that it “leaves lobsters to die slowly as their body parts are processed or collected to be thrown away.”

The organization calls handling by Maine Fair Trade Lobster “unjustifiable” and adds that Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster, Whole Foods in Portland and the planned Ready Seafood expansion in Saco all either already use or will use more humane killing methods that involve high-pressure water or electric stunning systems.

Foster said Tuesday in an email that he has been contacted by PETA about the alleged mistreatment at the Gouldsboro plant.

“We received a case for review, but no decision has been made at this time,” Foster said. “I will be personally reviewing the case and making the charging decision, likely after the new year.”

Christina Ferranti, spokeswoman for Maine Fair Trade Lobster, said Tuesday that the company is aware of the PETA video. She said that while the company follows standard industry practices, it aims to surpass them as well.

“The company believes in the humane treatment of lobsters and continues to invest in new technologies and process improvements with the goal of promoting the welfare of lobsters,” Ferranti said in a prepared statement. “Maine Fair Trade Lobster will continue to work with industry lobster associations and scientific parties for ongoing management and handling of lobsters.”

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, said the industry takes pains to maintain “careful stewardship of the resource and meticulous handling” of lobster. She said Maine fishermen, processors and dealers need to “take a stand against attacks and tactics” used by PETA to try to embarrass the industry, which is critical to Maine’s economy.

“We live and breathe this industry and are dedicated to its success,” Tselikis said. “The Maine lobster business supports roughly 12,000 fishermen and crew involved in the commercial harvest of lobster on the water and an additional 5,000 people working in the supply chain. Our lobster wholesale and processor businesses contribute $1 billion to the Maine economy on an annual basis, beyond the value of our $500 million fishery.”

For several years PETA has aggressively publicized its complaints about Maine’s lobster industry, including having nearly naked young women stage public protests and suggesting Maine erect a roadside marker to honor lobster who died when a truck carrying live lobster crashed this past August on Route 1 in Brunswick.

Others have accused the organization of hypocrisy, citing its practice of euthanizing thousands of cats and dogs at its shelter in Virginia.

Despite its objections, the group has been unsuccessful so far in having Maine lobster processors charged for any alleged mistreatment. In 2013, the group leveled similar accusations against a Rockland lobster plant owned by Linda Bean, but the district attorney there declined to file charges.

Police later said that threats were made against the Rockland plant after PETA released video it had surreptitiously recorded there.

The question of whether lobsters feel pain again got public attention this past summer when the owner of a roadside lobster pound on Mount Desert Island announced that she planned to treat lobsters with marijuana smoke before killing them, which she said was more humane because it put the animals at ease before they were dropped into cooking pots.

Robert Bayer, a University of Maine professor and former director of the university’s Lobster Institute, said at the time that it wasn’t clear if lobsters might benefit from exposure to marijuana smoke because they have no central cerebral cortex.

“Their nervous system is pretty primitive,” Bayer said earlier this year. “They probably don’t have the ability to process pain.”

PETA’s protests have been seemingly ineffective in suppressing demand for Maine lobster, the value and catch volume of which has increased dramatically over the past 30 years.

Since the late 1980s, when Maine lobstermen caught roughly 20 million pounds a year, annual harvest totals have jumped more than sixfold, reaching 132 million pounds in 2016. For the past three years, the average price of lobster paid to Maine fishermen has been close to or above $4 per pound, a historically high price resulting from high worldwide demand for Maine’s signature seafood.

Industry and state officials have credited conservation measures in the fishery for making sure lobsters have not been overharvested, though others have questioned whether the fishery can be called “sustainable” because of the impact that it and other fixed-gear fisheries have on whales.

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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....