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Lobstermen Optimistic on Sustainability

ROCKLAND, Maine — Three public meetings this week in Ellsworth, Rockland and Portland on sustainable lobster fishing practices and market certification produced the support organizers had wanted.

“We had a lot of good ideas and very positive support,” said John Hathaway, chairman of the Governor’s Working Group on Maine Lobster Sustainability and president of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond.

Discussions in Ellsworth on Monday and Portland on Wednesday took about three hours at each session, Hathaway said. The meeting in Rockland on Tuesday lasted a little more than an hour and was attended by 19 people.

The working group, appointed by Gov. John Baldacci in February, held the meetings this week to hear from lobstermen about pursuing certification of the Maine lobster industry as a sustainable fishery by the international Marine Stewardship Council, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes responsible fishing practices.

“The Maine lobster is a brand known the world over for its quality and high value,” Hathaway said at Tuesday’s gathering at the Rockland Public Library.

More and more large buyers of seafood, particularly in the European market, have pledged only to buy seafood carrying the MSC label, he added.

“Without certification, Maine lobsters could be cut from the major markets,” he said. “Obtaining MSC certification is an essential step toward protecting and enhancing our brand.”

The working group plans to build on a preassessment of the fishery’s sustainable practices completed in August by Moody Marine Ltd. of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The panel intends to develop a full assessment that would encourage voluntary participation from the lobster industry and ask for funds from private donors to cover the cost of a nine- to 12-month process of analysis and third-party endorsement of the lobster industry’s sustainable practices, Hathaway said. A nonprofit organization has been established to receive and dispense funds for the assessment. Hathaway said he had requested three bids for the service, including one from Moody to do the full review.

Neither fishermen nor taxpayers will be asked to support the plan financially, he added.

Parts of the preassessment review included background of the fishery and a stock assessment and biology of the species; history, location and scale of the fishery; and market information.

The report concluded that there were no major barriers to obtaining certification.

After the full assessment is completed, the industry can apply for certification through the MSC, Hathaway said.

Linda Bean, president of Port Clyde Lobster, said Tuesday the demand for lobster sustainability is increasing all the time, almost weekly.

“The consumer is interested in having a sustainable fishery in a green world, a place where they can have a fish supply that is safe to eat and traceable to the source,” she said.

“There are some other possibilities, but it’s going to be tougher for us, and the market will be closing in on us if we don’t participate,” she said.

The majority of Maine’s hard shell lobsters are shipped live to Europe, Florida, the West Coast and to major retail and restaurant chains such as Wal-Mart, Kroger’s and Red Lobster. Many are shipped to wholesalers in Boston and New York City, said Hank Rimkewicz, general manager of North Atlantic Lobster Inc. in Danvers, Mass.

He pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting that every single wholesale buyer in Europe now asks, “What are you as an industry doing on sustainability?”

“The idea of sustainability is interwoven with concerns about fossil fuel consumption, global warming, greenhouse gases, carbon footprints — it’s all interwoven together,” Rimkewicz said.

“If we don’t achieve MSC certification — and it’s MSC certification that’s universally recognized as the preeminent certifier throughout the world — we’re going to take a huge portion of the market off the table,” he said.

George Lapointe, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and a member of the working group, noted three criteria by which MSC certification is judged: the level of the stock; the impact of the fishery on the ecosystem; and the management system.

Hathaway said the working group plans to meet in another week to announce whether it will go forward on a full assessment of the lobster fishery as a requirement for MSC certification, a process and review that could take up to a year to complete.