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Reconsider the Lobster

Clawing for answers about sustaining both lobsters and lobstermen.

What could be more simple than fishing? You catch what nature provides, and toss back what you don't need. At least that's the way it was until every 7-Eleven and gas station mini-mart started selling spicy tuna rolls, and scientists observed that the oceans were overfished and gutted of our favorite species. Now, a trip to the fish counter at the supermarket is riddled with complexity.If you want to understand where your food comes from, you have to go beyond the supermarket, and go straight to the source. With that premise, Dorothée Royal-Hedinger (the host) and I (the cameraman) launched in April, and we set out on a nationwide road trip, documenting the sustainable food movement in a series of three- to five-minute videos. On the East Coast Tour, which wrapped up about a week ago, we headed out to the wharves of Maine to find out how lobster fishing can be sustainable, both for the oceans and the fishermen.The difficulty with making the decision to buy lobster-or any seafood-is that the USDA doesn't have an across-the-board certification for seafood telling consumers what fish has been raised and harvested sustainably, as it does for land-based food. The next best option is to check the seafood advisory lists, which can be pretty confusing too. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund says that Maine lobster is "ECO-OK" and Seafood Watch calls Maine lobster a "good alternative," but the The Marine Conservation Society gives lobster its worst rating (five out of five), warning of overfishing.

We found some answers at the Common Ground Country Fair, where we caught up with lobster fisherman Ty Babb, whose blazing red hair and ruddy cheeks resemble the crustaceans he hunts. After some banter, Babb smacked a lobster trap on the ground between us and started explaining what "sustainability" means to his operation. According to Babb, lobster is fished sustainably when fishermen ensure that healthy populations are maintained by not harvesting too many lobsters at once. Lobster populations are indeed on the rise, an accomplishment that should be attributed to both fishermen and regulators. State laws restrict the size-both minimum and maximum-of lobsters that can be sold and traps are required to have escape valves that enable lobsters at the low end of the size requirement to escape.[youtube] major concern in keeping lobster trapping sustainable is the sheer number of traps on the ocean floor. Lobstermen can set up to 800 traps, and each year thousands of lobster traps are lost, leaving the ocean floor littered with what are known as "ghost traps." In 1990, a law was passed requiring all traps to be equipped with a biodegradable "ghost panel," enabling trapped lobsters to eventually escape from lost traps, but that only solves part of the problem. More recently, a group of scientists conducted an experiment on Monhegan Island that could ultimately help clean up the ocean floor. According to Babb, "They used half as many traps, and they went out and caught almost the same amount in the first year." Cutting down the number of active traps would also reduce the number of end lines-the ropes which connect the traps to the buoys-in the water. According to a recent Boston Globe story, 323 whales became entangled in fishing gear between 1997 and 2007.On the other side of the equation, the fishermen are suffering, and there are fewer plans in place to help ensure their survival. Not only is the price per pound of lobster incredibly low, but scientists are urging the state to reduce the region's herring catch limit by more than half. Herring is the primary bait used by lobstermen. While limiting the catch will be great for the environment, it will drive up the price of bait, adding to the difficulties faced by fishermen.Although the Maine coast looks a lot different than some of the other places we've covered with the project, the lobster industry shares some major similarities with other parts of the food landscape. The challenge, both on land and in the ocean, is to produce food using limited resources and causing the least harmful impact. The lobster industry in Maine is making major strides towards reaching both of those goals. If you're feeling indecisive at the seafood counter, Maine lobster is a selection you can make with pretty clear conscience.Guest blogger Mark Andrew Boyer is one half of the team at, a project that explores the landscape of American sustainable food. Read more about Maine's lobster industry from GOOD food columnist Peter Smith here. Photos by Zack Bowen.

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