A project undertaken in 2019 at the University of Maine hopes to maximize the value of Maine’s lobster harvest. Researchers have created a FitBit for lobsters, dubbed the “FitBug,” and a fake lobster made up of monitoring devices, known as “MockLobster,” to understand how to keep more lobsters alive as they move from trap to dealer.
A collaboration among the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, and University of Maine faculty Damian Brady, Rick Wahle, and Deborah Bouchard, Steve Jury of Saint Joseph’s College and Ben Gutzler of Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, the project began with support through the University of Maine’s Research Reinvestment Fund. This summer it received two additional years of funding through NOAA’s Saltonstall-Kennedy grant program.
The University has developed FitBugs and MockLobsters to measure various stressors experienced by lobsters to address shrink. “Shrink” is the term used in the lobster industry to describe the mortality rate of lobsters after they are hauled from the sea. From the moment they come over the gunnel, lobsters are subjected to variations in temperature, potential rough handling by lobstermen and dock workers, and numerous other stresses that affect their overall health.
Cassandra Leeman, an M.S. student at the University of Maine working with Brady, is the project’s coordinator. Several lobster processors, including Luke’s Lobster and Ready Seafood, are taking part in the study as industry members. “We started making contacts with docks this winter but then the pandemic hit,” Leeman said. The study’s goal is to track the wellbeing of lobsters from the moment they are caught in a trap to the moment they arrive at a dealer’s facility. To do that, Gutzler created two unusual pieces of equipment: a fake lobster and a heart monitor for live lobsters.
The MockLobster is made up of monitoring devices that record temperature, light, and the rate of acceleration experienced by the lobster. Acceleration tells researchers if the lobster or the crate it is in has been moved rapidly or bumped hard. Lobsters are particularly susceptible to damage when flung into tanks or dropped sharply in a crate on the dock. The heart monitor or FitBug straps onto a live lobster and continuously monitors and logs the lobster’s movements and heart rate.
This summer the study team linked up with three mid-coast lobster wharves. “We did about three runs per dock per month. We hadn’t used the equipment before so this was a way to smooth out the wrinkles,” Leeman said.
A lobsterman was given a MockLobster to put in one of his or her traps. The heart monitor was attached to a live lobster once the trap was hauled and before the lobster went into the live tank.
When the crate with the MockLobster and lobster wearing a FitBug arrived at a buyer’s facility, a project intern examined each lobster in the crate to determine its degree of health. Then the intern would take blood samples from the lobsters to detect bacterial infection and specific markers of stress, explained Leeman. “During the summer we had two interns who would examine one, maybe two crates per week,” she said.
The mortality rate of lobsters landed in Maine varies from 3% to 7%, according to lobster dealers. Maine lobstermen landed 100,725,000 pounds in 2019. A 3% to 7% shrink rate means between 3,021,00 and 7,050,750 pounds of lobster died. That, in turn, translates into a lot of money lost.
A small company in Nova Scotia also has been devising ways to monitor a lobster’s journey from trap to dealer. Sedna Technologies, based in Dartmouth, uses a mobile app and sensors to monitor and track temperature and dissolved oxygen in the lobsters’ environment, starting with a detailed breakdown of the water quality in the live tanks on the boats. The monitors ring an alarm on a lobsterman or dealer’s cell phone so that the issue, for example, low dissolved oxygen levels, can be addressed. If the lobster should die, both the lobsterman and the dealer can pinpoint exactly where the death occurred. “They have approached us about perhaps using their equipment next year,” Leeman said.
With an additional two years of funding, the study will expand its geographic range to southern Maine, midcoast and Downeast lobster wharves next summer. “We will have much more data, which will allow us to look at variability in shrink by region, season, by dock and even by lobsterman,” Leeman said. The research will provide detailed data on specific places where stress has a detrimental effect on a lobster’s health. “Before the project ends we will be able to identify where the stressors are in the supply chain and work with industry to find cost effective ways to correct those problems,” she said.