Canadian program links lobstermen with global consumers

First published in the MLA Newsletter, May, 2012

Increasingly consumers want to know where their food comes from. Not only where it comes from but who harvested it and how it was harvested. Being able to track your cucumber from the farm in California where it was grown to the local grocery story has become fairly easy. But tracking a live animal, such as a lobster, from the boat to the consumer has been a daunting proposition. Until now.

The tag is attached to those lobsters selected by the lobsterman as high quality, shippable product. Photo courtesy of EcoTrust Canada.

Thisfish.info, a Web site launched in 2010 by the nonprofit organization EcoTrust Canada, allows a lobster consumer to learn specifically where his or her lobster came from, down the harbor, the lobsterman and even the name of the boat.  This level of traceability for lobster has not been attained before in Canada, explained Eric Enno Tamm, head of marketing and communications for Thisfish.

The project started in partnership with Vancouver Island fishermen and the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters. “Fishermen saw traceability as a new trend coming from both government and from the industry as well,” Tamm explained. “They saw this as a way to distinguish their fish as more than just a commodity. It was a real opportunity rather than a threat.”

As Thisfish’s Web site states, “Thisfish is committed to helping you [the consumer] make more informed choices about the authenticity, quality and sustainability of the seafood you eat, while promoting the folks who proudly stand behind their catch. We want to make the seafood business more transparent and reward those who responsibly harvest and handle your catch.”

Through the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters, lobstermen in Atlantic Canada heard about Thisfish and, through the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, approached EcoTrust Canda to begin a pilot project in their area. “The lobstermen were involved in developing the system,” Tamm explained. Obviously tagging a dormant filet of flounder isn’t very tricky. But finding a way to tag a live lobster presented a challenge. Eventually the lobstermen involved in the pilot project came up with a system they felt would work.

Photo courtesy of EcoTrust Canada.

To start with, each lobstermen is given a bundle of Thisfish tags.Each tag has an individual code number. The lobsterman puts the tags on as many lobsters as he pleases during the day. Then at the end of the day he uploads information about each tagged lobster into the Thisfish Web site. “Some will tag the hard shells, others might tag based on size,” Tamm explained. “They upload where the lobster was caught, the weather, and other specific information.”

The person who finally buys and eats that lobster can type the code number into the Thisfish Web site and find out everything imaginable about the lobster and the lobsterman who caught it, including how to cook it, the name of the fishing vessel, a map of the port in which it was landed, nutritional information and recipes.

The pilot project drew 126 lobstermen from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, according to Tamm. Dustin McInnis, a 32-year-old lobsterman based in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, is an enthusiastic participant. “I’m a member of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union,” McInnis said. “Ruth McInnis [staff at the Maritime Fishermen’s Union] brought the idea to us. It made sense so about 30 of us from southwest and northern Nova Scotia signed on for the pilot program.”

According to McInnis, attaching the little tag to the lobster band didn’t take much time at all. He fishes 275 traps during this eight week season, hauling about 400 lobsters per day. During the pilot project he tagged bout three-quarters of his daily catch. “It didn’t slow us down,” he said cheerfully. “Initially a lot of lobstermen were scared that it would lead to more paper work. It hasn’t. I enter the codes on my iPhone when I’m steaming home.”

What really pleases McInnis is the fact that the connection between the lobster and the consumer is driving up demand. “They guy I sell to was getting more and more requests from the companies he sells to,” McInnis reported. Consumers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and even Somalia have contacted McInnis to find out more about the lobster they had purchased. “They ask questions about everything, the weather, the type of gear I fish,” McInnis said.

While he hasn’t seen an increase in the price he is paid for his lobster, McInnis thinks that the program inevitably will drive up demand. “Sobey’s [the Canadian grocery chain] is strictly buying Thisfish haddock. I think as it gets more and more popular it will drive the price up. It’s putting our name on the global map,” McInnis said.

Steward Lamont, managing director of Tangier Lobster Company Limited, signed on to the Thisfish program this winter. The firm, located east of Halifax, believes that traceability of its lobsters could become a hallmark of the company. “We approached our harvesters to see if they would be interested in a program that will reward quality,” Lamont explained. “Traceabilty is a two-way street. The consumer knows where the lobster comes from and the harvester knows who’s getting his catch. In this Facebook era, there’s high value if a customer in Shanghai can plug the code into his iPhone at the dinner table and find out who caught the lobster and when.”At first just three lobstermen signed up to do the tagging; in April six more agreed to take part. “These are guys who fish in areas and in ways that put quality at the top of the agenda,” Lamont said. “We pay them a premium to tag this produce and introduce the code numbers into the system.” Lobstermen who tag Thisfish lobsters earn approximately 50 cents more per pound. They grade their lobsters on the boat for hard shell, two-claw lobsters in the one to four pound range. “They ditch between 30 to 35 percent of their catch as not good for tagging,” Lamont said. “We’ve never disputed anything they’ve tagged.”

To Lamont, the Thisfish program links the lobsterman and the consumer together in a way that promotes quality and eventually, higher prices. “Their name is on it,” he said emphatically. “The harvesters want really good quality and they take pride in it. I think this is the most exciting concept in live lobster that I’ve seen in twenty-five years.”