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Certification Effort Draws Questions from Wary Lobster Harvesters

ELLSWORTH — The quest to have the Maine lobster fishery certified as sustainable by the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) took a small step forward this week as members of a working group appointed by Governor John Baldacci began meeting with lobster fishermen to answer questions about the process.

Five members of the working group gathered at the Ellsworth Public Library Monday evening to meet with a handful of lobstermen and others interested in the certification process. Other meetings were slated for Rockland and Portland later in the week.

The working group has already taken the first step in the certification process. Last spring, the group hired a Halifax, Nova Scotia, environmental consulting firm, Moody Marine Ltd., to conduct a “pre-assessment” of the Maine lobster industry. The aim was to determine whether the industry was likely to be able to meet the sustainability certification standards established by the MSC. Funds for the pre-assessment were privately raised by the working group and no state funding was involved.

The report was completed in June, but the working group made the results public only recently. The pre-assessment concluded that there were no significant barriers to getting certification. Now the working group is seeking input from the lobster industry to determine whether to proceed with the certification process.

On Monday, several working group members voiced strong support for certification. Linda L. Bean is the owner of Port Clyde Lobster, in Port Clyde. Her company sells Maine lobster in the European market as well as domestically.

According to Bean, among consumers “there is a huge emphasis and demand for sustainable fisheries. They want to know that fishermen are not raping the resource,” she said.

The push among consumers for sustainable fisheries isn’t limited to the European market.

Hank Rimkewicz runs the North Atlantic Lobster Co. in Danvers, Mass. The company is one of the largest lobster suppliers in the country to supermarket giants such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Star Markets, Kroger and Albertsons. For more than 20 years, he said, his company has bought Maine lobsters almost exclusively because they are superior to lobster from other sources.

Rimkewicz reminded the half-dozen or so people at the meeting who were not directly or indirectly involved in the certification effort that Wal-Mart has announced that, after February 2011, it will no longer sell seafood that isn’t MSC certified. Pressure from consumers will, he said, force other large supermarkets and retailers follow suit.

The giant retailer currently buys “many thousands of pounds of lobster, week in and week out,” from North Atlantic, Rimkewicz said. If it other big customers stop buying Maine lobster because it wasn’t MSC certified, the effects on Maine fishermen would be disastrous.

“Products that aren’t certified will fade off into obscurity,” Rimkewicz said, “Boat prices will plummet.”

Adding urgency to the decision of whether Maine should seek certification for its lobsters is the decision of the Canadian lobster industry to pursue MSC certification. Canada buys millions of pound of Maine lobsters annually, some for processing, others for sale in the live market.

According to working group member John Hathaway, president of Shucks Lobster — a dealer and processor in Richmond — Canada’s largest offshore lobster fishing company is pursuing MSC certification for its catch. He also said that he “heard that the rest of the industry is right behind.”
Whether Maine decides to have its lobster fishery certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council could have an impact on the future of lobstermen up and down the coast like the crew of the Three Gs, of Trenton, who were recently hauling their gear near Hardwood Island in Blue Hill Bay.—STAFF PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT
Reaction to the possibility of MSC certification among the five lobster harvesters at the meeting who are not affiliated with the working group was largely wary, but not hostile. A few raised questions about what the process would cost, who would pay for it, and what it would require from individual fishermen.

According to Bean and Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner George Lapointe, the whole certification process could cost $800,000 to $1 million. Bean was confident that the money could be raised from sources within the seafood industry without tapping lobstermen for a contribution.

The MSC program also calls for annual auditing with recertification every five years. Those costs were a concern to Jon Carter, a Bar Harbor lobsterman.

Carter is a longtime supporter of more sea sampling by scientists to determine the health of the lobster resource. He is also one of the relatively few Maine lobstermen who supported DMR requirements for more detailed catch reports by fishermen. The need for both increased reporting and more sea sampling were the two most critical issues raised in the pre-assessment report.

With high bait and fuel prices already a problem for lobstermen, Carter worried about the impact of annual certification audit costs on their overhead.

“I know where you’re going is to get a better price, but you can’t guarantee a better price,” he said.

Bill Anderson, a lobsterman from Trescott in Washington County, had another concern. The MSC is based in London and he wondered how it could have the scientific expertise to decide whether widely different fisheries in many countries were sustainable.

“I don’t want somebody in England writing the rules for all over the world,” Anderson said.

Lapointe explained that the assessment process involved independent environmental and scientific experts familiar with each fishery. He also explained that the experts would use the same stock assessment data and methods used by state and federal fisheries regulators in making lobster fishery management decisions.

Working group member Mike Cote, owner of Look’s Gourmet Food Co., in Whiting, added that the MSC had a financial incentive in seeing to it that fisheries achieved certification. Look’s sells three chowders made entirely with MSC-certified seafood and carrying the MSC seal. His company pays MSC a small royalty for the right to use the seal, which it gained after its facilities were inspected and found to comply with MSC requirements. Cote said the MSC seal was a huge benefit in the marketplace

“They’re just granolas who don’t want us to tear up the oceans, but they have to work with us or they don’t have anything to do,” he said.

“My take is MSC is willing to work with us,” said Norbert Lemieux, a lobsterman from Cutler and a member of the working group.

After getting more comments from the industry, Hathaway said, the working group will make a decision about whether to take the next step and ask MSC to do a full assessment of the fishery. That could take several months. Once the assessment was complete, the industry would still have to determine whether to proceed with certification. How that decision would be made is unclear.

“I just think if we’re going to do this we’d better beat Canada to the punch,” Carter said.