When it comes to shipping a lobster, what does quality mean?

First published in the MLA Newsletter, September, 2012.

“Quality is job number one” goes the advertising campaign for the Ford Motor Company. Given the company’s resurrection since 2008, it could be said that it is proving true to its advertising. But what is quality? And how does the concept of quality apply to Maine’s lobstering industry, where the bulk of landings each year come in the form of soft-shell, or shedder, lobsters?

To understand the notion of quality, one starts with lobster biology. A lobster is a formidable creature, armed to the teeth with a hard shell bristling with spikes and sharp edges. It has just one handicap: it must discard that shell in favor of a new one at least once a year, or several times a year when it is a juvenile. It is at that point the animal is most vulnerable to external stresses.

“A healthy lobster on the seafloor is able to move about and forage and is not suffering problems from predators,” explained Bob Steneck, research biologist at the University of Maine’s Darling Center in Walpole. “A shedder lobster, on the other hand, that finds itself in a trap and then onboard a boat, suffers stress.”

What is stress? You and I understand it as pressure, from our spouses, children, boss, or neighbors, to do or be something that conflicts with what we want to do or be. A doctor, however, thinks of stress as both psychological pressure and also as a physical factor. A very hot summer, such as that we have experienced this year, cause physiological stress on the human body, particularly on weaker bodies such as the elderly, those with illnesses, or the very young.

Lobsters don’t suffer mental stress, according to Steneck. They don’t have the cognitive ability to freak out because of a work deadline or a fight with the kids. They do, however, suffer stress from their physical environment. “Anything that reduces the productivity of the organism, such as slowing feeding or growth, is stress,” Steneck said. High water temperatures, crowding in a trap or pound, and the act of shedding their old shell all produce stress in lobsters.

Stress, in turn, can have a systemic effect on lobsters, Steneck explained. “It’s a complicated feedback mechanism that comprises the immune system of lobsters,” he said. “Temperature, salinity variations, crowding. It’s not a coincidence that in 1998, the warmest summer on record at that point, that lobster shell disease broke out in southern New England at a seriously damaging level.”

A lobster that has recently shed its shell is known as a “paper lobster.” At this point it is particularly vulnerable to just about everything:  other lobsters, large fish and, of course, lobstermen. Steneck remembers being shocked by the fragility of newly shed lobsters many years ago when he was doing lobster surveys along the coast. “Sometimes it looked like a real lobster but when I grabbed it, it turned out to be a paper lobster,” he recalled. “I’d immediately let go but the lobster was dead. Their gills are just under the carapace.”

To maintain its health, lobsters must be handled differently according to the hardness of their shell. A Cutler lobsterman Steneck spoke to in August said that when he gets paper lobsters in the trap, he just leaves them in there to harden up rather than risk killing them by putting them in a crate.

To a lobster dealer, the definition of quality is fairly clear-cut. “A quality lobster is one with vitality and a high meat content,” said Hugh Reynolds, president of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington. “You want one that’s not broken or stressed.” If he comes across a lobster that shows no aggression or can’t pick up its claws, he knows he’s looking at a lobster that will not ship well.

Photo courtesy University of Nebraska.

So how does he assure himself that he is buying quality lobsters? It’s a personal thing, Reynolds admitted. “We know which boats have good lobster,” he said bluntly. “Most of the guys don’t give a shit about quality.” Once the lobster is purchased, Reynolds keeps the animals in cooled seawater for no more than 36 hours before shipping. “Yes, quality has diminished this summer,” Reynolds admitted. “It’s the heat and warm water that have had an effect. That’s out of the control of fishermen.”

Pete McAleney, president of New Meadows Lobster in Portland, determines quality by touch. “You don’t have to squeeze the sides [of a lobster]. They will crack. You can pinch the claws,” he said. “You can tell by its strength. I love it when they try to bite the hell out of me.”

Quality lobsters make for a good bottom line and happy customers. So McAleney makes sure that his staff goes through the crates carefully. Lobsters are purchased in the afternoon, he explained, then in the morning the crew inspects the crates and the lobsters are shipped out later that day. “The names of the guys are on their crates,” McAleney said. “We get to know the lobstermen who are bringing in good product.”

Another buyer in Maine, who asked not to be named, pays specific attention to the shipability of the lobsters she buys. “We grade the product here and cull by size and quality,” she said. The crew is trained to measure the lobsters to determine size and to judge whether a lobster can be shipped locally, to New York City or further away. Once again, such evaluations take place informally. “They take them out of the water and hold them for a little bit,” she explained. “They can tell by how fast the lobster moves its claws or flippers. It’s very time consuming.”

Processors have more exacting standards for what constitutes a quality lobster. East Coast Seafood’s Paturel facility on Deer Isle, New Brunswick, uses specific tests to make sure its lobsters are high quality. Lobsters brought to the plant go through a shell strength test and a protein test, which examines the blood sugar level of the lobster. Lobsters that have suffered stress, due to environmental factors such as heat or low oxygen water, will show elevated levels of hyperglycemic hormone (CHH). Those hormones in turn can affect the animal’s blood sugar level. On a scale of 1 to 30, any lobster with a blood sugar level above ten rates as a shippable lobster.

Tim Harkins, Rocky Coast Lobster president, noted in a Working Waterfront article that quality control is vital to increasing markets for Maine lobster. “Why is it that we can ship millions of 10-cent eggs across the country and have so few broken, but we can’t ship a $4 lobster from Stonington to Spruce Head without killing or damaging 3-5 percent of the harvest? By improving the quality of product that is caught and minimizing the amount of handling that happens, the industry will see improvements in the return on the product,” he wrote.

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