Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lobstermen May Seek Green Certification For Lobster Fishery

Ellsworth American

Written by Stephen Rappaport
Thursday, March 13, 2008

ROCKPORT — Red is the answer most people give when asked the color of Maine lobster.

The Maine Lobster Promotion Council (MLPC) and some forward-looking members of the state’s lobster industry, though, hope to change the popular answer to that question to “green.”

Last year, Maine lobstermen harvested some 56 million pounds of lobster. That represents a drop of nearly 25 percent from the 2006 figure.

The sharp decline in landings, coupled with low boat prices through much of the season and steep increases in the cost of fuel, bait and insurance, meant a lot of unhappy fishermen suffered serious cuts in their incomes. But 56 million pounds is still a lot of lobsters, and if folks like MLPC Executive Director Dane Somers and John Hathaway, CEO of the Richmond-based processor Shucks Maine Lobster, are right, they’re going to be harder to sell unless the Maine lobster fishery becomes certified as “green.”

Hathaway, whose company sells a range of fresh and frozen processed lobster products at wholesale and to food service companies, told a large crowd at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum last weekend that the market for lobster is changing rapidly. Big lobster buyers such as Wal-Mart (the nation’s largest purchaser of lobsters) and Whole Foods have put the word out that within the next few years they will only buy seafood certified as sustainable. That is also the position of the largest European grocery chains such as Tesco. Already the largest grocer in the United Kingdom, Tesco is moving aggressively to establish a presence in the United States.

“Unless we’re certified, they’re not even going to talk to us,” Hathaway said.

So, what does certification mean, and who provides it?

One source is the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The organization conducts extensive, detailed “assessments” of particular fisheries that may, if they meet requirements for good fishing and fisheries management practices, earn MSC certification as sustainable.

Founded in 1997 by Unilever, the world’s largest seafood buyer, and the World Wildlife Fund, MSC became an independent organization in 1999. In the past seven years it has assessed dozens of fisheries throughout the world. Currently some 24 fisheries are MSC certified. Among them are the Alaskan wild salmon and pollock fisheries, the Oregon pink shrimp fishery and the Mexican Baja California and Western Australia rock lobster fisheries.

Last week, Governor John Baldacci established a working group to pursue MSC certification for the Maine lobster industry. In addition to Hathaway, the group includes Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner George Lapointe and Linda Bean, owner of Port Clyde Lobster.

“We’re already sustainable,” Hathaway said. “We have to tell the world.”

Hank Rimkewicz, of the North Atlantic Lobster Co. of Danvers, Mass., one of the largest lobster buyers in New England, offered strong support for Hathaway’s view. Maine ships about 70 percent of the lobsters landed in the state to Canadian buyers and, according to Rimkewicz, the Canadian lobster industry is already exploring MSC certification for its products, which compete with Maine lobsters in the world market.

“The last thing we want is for three years down the road for them to be certified and realize that Maine didn’t even try,” he said.

MSC certifications are good for an initial period of five years, subject to annual audits to make sure that the certified fishery remains sustainable. The assessment process can take a year or more, and it is conducted by an independent, third party certifying organization that determines whether each fishery complies with MSC standards.

Achieving MSC certification isn’t quick, and it isn’t cheap either. At one point, the MLPC determined that the cost could be in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. Hathaway said that none of that cost would be borne by individual fishermen.

“I think the funds are available from private enterprises,” Hathaway said.

He might be right.

Mike Cote, CEO of Look’s Gourmet Food Co., in Whiting, said his company sells several canned gourmet food products under the Bar Harbor Foods label. Some of those products — such as seafood chowders — are made with MSC-certified Alaskan seafood that he pays a premium price for. If Maine lobsters were certified it would also fetch a premium.

“I can tell you the price of the product will go up,” Cote told the fishermen in the audience. “I’m paying 45 percent more for MSC-certified product.”

Among Bar Harbor’s products are lobster Newburg and lobster bisque. They are made using lobster that Cote buys from Downeast fishermen.

“I want to put the MSC symbol on our lobster products,” Cote said. “It gives me an edge,” in the marketplace, “and all of you will be a lot stronger.”

According to Hathaway, the move on the part of the giant food companies to selling only certified, sustainable seafood comes in response to the demands of their customers — retail seafood buyers who come to the supermarket to shop.

“The whole thing is consumer driven,” Hathaway said. “If we don’t do it, our list of customers is going to be narrowed down to Red’s Eats,” a popular roadside lobster shack on Route 1 in Wiscasset.

Not everyone in the audience sounded convinced.

“Somebody’s going to get screwed in the end,” said Elliott Thomas, a Yarmouth lobsterman.

“We like to phrase it as somebody’s going to benefit,” replied Jim Humphries, MSC’s director of fisheries.

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