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Is “green” certification an answer?

Maine’s lobster industry, facing a “Perfect Storm” of economic and regulatory challenges, is partway through the process of achieving certification as a sustainable fishery, led by an enthusiastic group of processors and harvesters.

Not everyone in the lobstering business is sure it’s a good idea. Some believe Maine lobster shouldn’t need to prove its sustainability with a certificate, since the industry’s success over more than a century should be proof enough. But even skeptics say a “green” label may be necessary to reach certain markets in the future.

“In 2011, Wal-Mart will only buy certified seafood,” said John Hathaway, president of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond. “It’s market-driven. You have to listen to the customers or they won’t buy what you have.”

When Hathaway, Linda L. Bean of Port Clyde Lobster and John Ready of Catch a Piece of Maine in Portland, began pursuing certification last winter, the governor turned it into the Working Group on Maine Lobster Sustainability that included three harvesters and the Commissioner of Marine Resources. Recently, the group expanded to add more harvesters and industry representatives.

The pre-assessment was finished in June. The full assessment should take from 12 to 18 months and would be conducted by Moody Marine Ltd. of Halifax, Nova Scotia, which did the pre-assessment of the fishery. The final eco-label, if achieved, will come from the independent, international, nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) of London. But going forward with that next step has not been agreed on. “We have to decide whether we go for the full assessment,” said Hathaway.

The MSC has guidelines all fisheries must meet to attain the “green” designation and goals each different fishery must make toward improvement in the first five-year period of certification. All of this costs big money, another concern for some harvesters, especially in a time when they are seeing the lowest prices since the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined with higher fuel and bait costs.

According to Hathaway, Bean has raised the funds to pay the cost of conducting the pre-assessment and full assessment. If assessment is adopted, Hathaway does not want lobstermen, or taxpayers, to be footing the bill to meet with compliance conditions. “It is our goal not to have the lobstermen pay for it,” Hathaway said. In addition, the working group talked about conducting a separate market survey to determine the benefits of certification to the lobster industry, which would be conducted at the same time as the full assessment, he said.

Right now, landings are good, but the industry is in crisis, as demand for lobster has dropped despite record low prices, due to the Wall Street meltdown and consumer confidence hitting an all-time low in the economic recession sweeping the country and the world.

By mid-October, lobster prices had dropped 50 percent from the previous month, hitting lows of under $2 in some places, creating a crisis in the industry.

When the remaining Canadian seasons start, Maine lobstermen fear their increased supply could depress prices further. Many harvesters say they will bring their traps in early because it’s not worth the fuel to go out.

“It’s a ‘Perfect Storm’ of bad, unforeseeable conditions, said David Cousens of South Thomaston, a lobsterman and a member of the governor’s Working Group on Maine Lobster Sustainability. He’s not completely enthusiastic about the certification idea, but believes “it will probably be a necessity in the future for some markets. Consumers are becoming ever more educated and knowledgeable and are demanding to know where their food comes from.”

The working group held three hearings in Rockland, Ellsworth and Portland to discuss the process and hear concerns from lobstermen and dealers. At the meetings, the concerns of many harvesters centered around the conditions MSC will impose, including mandatory reporting.

“Many Maine lobstermen will resist that, at first,” said Cousens. “But it’s not that big a deal.”

Spruce Head lobsterman Bob Baines, head of the Spruce Head co-op and a recent member of the working group, said he’s interested and involved, but not sure about certification, yet.

“I haven’t made up my mind. It’s a ‘we’ll see’ as far as I’m concerned,” said Baines. “Fishermen’s resistance to reporting is huge. I think we’ll get a lot of shakeout about it this winter, and we’ll have a seminar at the Forum (Maine Fishermen’s Forum held annually at the Samoset Resort).”

“Quite a few lobstermen are in real trouble, said Baines. “Some guys won’t make it through the winter. We have to figure out a better way to conduct our business-to stretch out the season, catch fewer lobsters in the fall and not be so reliant on Canadian processors. We also have to figure out if we do go for certifications, who’s going to pay for it?”

Canadian processors usually buy up to 70 percent of Maine lobsters in the fall, but with the recent collapse of banks in Iceland, several processors lost their credit lines and were unable to buy lobsters.

“I think we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” said Bruce Fernald, an Iselesford lobstermen. “It’s Catch-22. If we go ahead, we get Wal-Mart and others who are only buying green. But if something happens, and nothing’s perfect in this world, like we hit a whale-they could pull our certifications and we’d lose all that market. But if we don’t do it, all those people won’t buy from us.”

Dave Thomas, also of Islesford, echoes Cousens’ “Perfect Storm” analogy. He admits he’s “gun-shy about anyone tinkering with anything right now. I’m on pins and needles. With the price of bait, the prices for our lobster, the whale rules, I’m shell-shocked. It’s a ‘Perfect Storm, only it’s economics this time. Thomas is also a member of the Island Institute’s Board of Trustees.

“We’re bottom dwellers in the lobster industry,” said Thomas. “We get lost in the shuffle. I understand what they’re trying to do, and certifying the Maine industry should be a no-brainer. I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t be green,” said Thomas. “I have mixed feelings for one simple reason-the same reason the Coast Guard sometimes gives for boat sinkings-unintended consequences.”

By late October, the state of the fishery was so dire that Governor John Baldacci issued a statement saying, “Prices have fallen below the level needed to maintain the economic viability of the Maine lobster industry,” and directed the Department of Economic and Community Development, the Department of Marine Resources, and the Finance Authority of Maine to meet with financial institutions and agencies to expedite ways to help financially-challenged lobstering families.

Maine’s Lobster Advisory Council also held an emergency meeting to discuss options for clearing inventories, Senator Olympia Snowe promised to seek aid for the beleaguered industry and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council launched a campaign of radio and newspaper public service announcements to encourage residents to buy lobsters and announced efforts to work with supermarkets to offer special promotions.

-David Tyler also contributed to this article