While lobster dominates Maine’s seafood economy, threats to the industry suggest that improving the diversity of the state’s seafood production is an important solution to consider.
The lobster catch in Maine broke a record last year at $725 million, up more than $312 million from 2020. But concerns about the future of the industry are looming with new regulations that have been imposed to protect right whales.
More concern surfaced when the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, based in California, said it is considering adding the North American lobster to its “red list,” which means Maine’s lobster fishery would lose its sustainability label.
The preliminary report on the American lobster, which questions the impact lobster traps have on right whales in the Gulf of Maine, remains under consideration and is open to public comment through the end of March.
Maine’s lobster fishery is currently rated “yellow,” meaning it’s OK to buy, but consumers should be aware of “concerns” regarding how the product is caught or managed.
Kyle Foley, senior program manager for sustainable seafood at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, said diversity can help resolve the sustainability dilemma.
She said GMRI’s sustainability programs have been working up and down the seafood supply chain with food processors, retailers, restaurants, and other institutions to promote and help make the industry more sustainable by encouraging more diversity in the seafood that’s available and endorsing local fisheries.
Foley said she’s seen more conversations about seafood diversification opportunities in Maine lately, even before protections to right whales came into the discussion. She said she’s seen a dip into the kelp industry, for example, as a winter product that can be grown when lobster is out of season. She’s also seen lobstermen adjusting to farm oysters and scallops, although getting permits to pivot what they’re fishing for can be an expensive route to take.
GMRI is now promoting an event called “Split the Bill,” scheduled for the end of March, to encourage consumers to engage with Maine’s local seafood products and support their restaurant partners (a list of which can be found on their culinary partners program page). Those who eat at a GMRI partner restaurant between March 21 and 27 and order seafood can submit a photo of their bill online for a chance to get some of the bill reimbursed in a VISA gift card.
Foley said part of GMRI’s work has been promoting varied seafood options, particularly in lesser-known “fin fish” such as hake, pollock, and monkfish. In the past, she said it’s been difficult for New England to keep up with larger overseas fisheries that export the more commonly recognized fish such as haddock and cod, but there are more options available locally.
“All of these other species are very similar (to haddock or cod) and just as delicious,” Foley said. “We just haven’t, as consumers in New England, been as familiar with them, but there’s a lot of opportunities there.”
Another upside of these fish is their versatility: They can be cooked at home, in restaurants, or served in school cafeterias.
Diversifying the catch in Maine is seen as a “win-win-win,” Foley said, because exploring these options creates benefits for fishermen, the ecosystem, and the consumer.
A silver lining for the seafood industry that has come out of the pandemic is that seafood sales at grocery stores have “skyrocketed.” Locally, Hannaford saw a 50 percent increase in local seafood sales in 2020, Foley said, and the increase hasn’t dropped off dramatically since restaurants have reopened.
She said the surge is a great opportunity for growth, especially with restaurants able to add to the enthusiasm about trying new types of seafood. While it’s difficult to endorse different options at grocery stores, she said restaurants can set trends around new local catches.
Historically, Foley said, Maine’s lobster industry has been a well-managed fishery because the fishermen consistently abide by conservation rules, but there’s a “real risk” that lobster will end up rated red by Monterey Bay Aquarium. The fishery also still faces a challenging situation with the new rules and regulations aimed at protecting right whales.
The current environment, Foley said, definitely puts the industry in a “rock-and-a-hard-place” scenario.