Maine’s top lobster port targets best handling practices

First published in Landings, June, 2013.

As the summer lobstering season gets underway, lobstermen in Maine’s top lobster port are taking steps to ensure that their lobsters are top quality, and have released an informational DVD on best handling practices to meet this goal.

During the summer of 2012, the Town of Stonington received Rural Development funding to support a pilot study of on-boat handling practices conducted by Penobscot East Resource Center. This pilot was documented by an informational video, “Stonington Lobster: Creating a Quality Brand,” produced by Stonington’s Opera House Arts. The DVD had a limited local release in September. Now, however, the DVD is being made available to all island lobster license holders as well as lobstermen throughout the state.

The results of the study are clear: after 28 days and 1,008 lobsters, the pilot showed that the lobsters handled and landed aboard vessels following the best handling protocols had far fewer injuries.  Only eight out of every 100 lobsters aboard these vessels showed injury, while the percentages were much higher on boats that had made no changes (33 out of every 100).  Best handling practices were able to reduce injuries to lobsters by over 70%. Why is this important? Because an injured lobster is less valuable in the market. “The most valuable lobster is a plate-ready live lobster,” said Hugh Reynolds of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington. “But the next most valuable lobster is one with an uninjured, perfect tail.”

Since the pilot’s completion, Stonington and Deer Isle fishermen have been meeting at Penobscot East to explore what they can do to ensure that they preserve the town’s reputation for excellent quality lobster in the new conditions of high stock levels and high water temperatures.  The goal is to have Stonington lobsters landed in peak condition, able to survive well to consumers’ plates around the globe.  “Several captains and stern men in our local meetings commented on how landing a quality lobster is a matter of pride,” said Holly Eaton, Penobscot East’s community liaison person.

Treat lobsters like fragile eggs, remove them from the trap by hand, and keep lots of dissolved oxygen in your tanks. These simple steps will give you a better quality lobster, according to a study undertaken in Stonington. Video still courtesy of Opera House Arts.

Treat lobsters like fragile eggs, remove them from the trap by hand, and keep lots of dissolved oxygen in your tanks. These simple steps will give you a better quality lobster, according to a study undertaken in Stonington. Video still courtesy of Opera House Arts.

This effort is the latest in a pro-active, collaborative effort that started in 2008 when the Stonington Lobster Working Group formed to address the low lobster prices that arose from the global financial crisis.  The group identified the quality of the landed lobster as one key element of lobster price that the town could affect. It has worked in a variety of ways since then on education and research on lobster quality.  Penobscot East partnered with Maine Sea Grant to produce the lobster quality training video used in the industry-wide Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) video for lobstermen.

In the pilot handling study, Penobscot East worked with four captains and their lobster dealer, Greenhead Lobster, to develop a list of six “best handling practices.” Each of the four captains ensured that the practices would be used aboard their fishing vessels for the month of August.

The six practices were: 1) Carefully breaking traps over the toe-rail; 2) Treating lobsters like fragile eggs; 3) Using cushioned, cool and moist banding stations; 4) Monitoring water circulation; 5) Removing each lobster by hand; and 6) Carefully placing them in crates going the same direction.  Sample lobsters from the boats were collected every weekday, as well as samples from boats that were not participating in the pilot, in order to assess what kinds of damage the animals were experiencing, as well as their overall health and vitality.  Participating captains had the dissolved oxygen levels in their lobster tanks read many times throughout the pilot to see how much air was actually available in the water where the lobster was held.

This winter, Penobscot East convened a series of outreach meetings inviting lobstermen, their sternmen and industry members to view the video, discuss the handling practices, any perceptions, concerns, and observations about lobster quality and handling, and what else they could do to keep their lobsters in peak condition despite the issues of high water temperatures and large landings.

Participating lobstermen say that they like the video. In discussions, they have reflected some surprise about how much of a difference on-board handling can make to the quality of lobsters that are landed.  They also said that they can’t “take for granted that people are using these practices.”  Several lobstermen reflected that it’s time to remind both captains and sternmen that good handling techniques need to start aboard the boat and that lobsters need to be handled like live animals.  At the same time, many have commented on the challenge that the current huge abundance of lobsters presents to lobstermen and sternmen, making it difficult to take the time to handle one lobster at a time.

The issue of lobster quality and handling practices is surfacing across the coastal regions of Maine and even became a topic of discussion at this year’s Lobster Town Meeting held in New Brunswick.  The Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association both spoke in support of promoting good handling techniques earlier this spring, suggesting that there will be continued work at various levels in order to increase awareness among lobstermen about ensuring a better quality Maine lobster.

In Stonington, the study’s work will continue this summer.  Interested captains and dealers are welcome to schedule a time for Penobscot East staff to monitor the dissolved oxygen in the water in their tanks or dockside.  Any questions can be directed to Holly Eaton, Community Liaison, Penobscot East Resource Center, 367-2708.