New Sensors Track Lobsters From Trap To Dealer

A. Philbrook photo.

How to keep a lobster healthy has been a riddle plaguing Maine’s lobster fishery forever. According to many lobster dealers, between 3% and 7% of all lobsters harvested in Maine waters die before they reach a dealer’s facility, a mortality rate called shrinkage. Shrinkage is taken into account in terms of price by both lobstermen and the lobster buyers they sell to. But losing that many lobsters before they make it to their final destination represents a large revenue loss for the industry.

“Just take the lower percentage,” said Andrew Goode, a Ph.D. student at the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine. “Three percent of the 2018 catch [$484,543,000 value] means $14 million is lost between the trap and the dealer. If we can track the lobsters, we can identify what factors influence shrinkage. We can make more money when we treat them better.”

Goode, who also lobsters in the Damariscotta River area, is one of the participants in a new project, a collaboration among the University of Maine Lobster Institute, the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, Bates College, and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. The project will use temperature and motion sensors designed by Matthew Jadud, Bates associate professor of digital and computational studies, and Phil Dostie, Environmental Geochemistry Lab manager, to monitor the conditions experienced by lobsters in the trap, on the boat, in the crate and on the truck.

“We want to identify the stress points in the supply chain and look at how wharves and lobstermen differ in how they handle lobsters,” explained Rick Wahle, executive director of the Lobster Institute. Funding for the first year of the project, which begins this month, comes from the University’s Research Reinvestment Fund; the second year will be supported by the Maine Lobster Dealers Association.

Three midcoast lobster buyers — Ready Seafood, Luke’s Lobster, and Rocky Coast — have agreed to take part in the project. “[The companies] will identify three wharves and fishermen to use these sensors,” Goode said. “The sensors will be passed from lobsterman to lobsterman and placed in the traps. We aim to have between 30 and 40 involved among the three wharves.” There will also be fixed monitors attached at the wharves themselves, said Wahle.

The new sensors will act as mock lobsters as they travel from the trap to the dealer, continuously recording what they experience. If a lobster is kept in an un-aerated tank on deck, the sensor will record the warm water temperature. If a crate is thrown roughly on the dock, the sensor will track that motion.

“Improving the shrink rate might be as simple as using a live well with a chiller in it or hoisting a crate by both sides, not one,” Goode commented. “The project is not about pointing fingers at any one but is rather a way of saying to lobstermen ‘you are your own boss, you want to make as much money as you can. These are some steps you can take to do that.’ It’s a way to improve the industry.”