ELLSWORTH — Dr. Jean Lavallée, a veterinarian from Prince Edward Island, had some advice for the two dozen or so fishermen, wharf workers and dealers who gathered at Ellsworth High School recently for a workshop on how to handle lobsters.
If people want more money for their lobsters, Lavallée said, they need to treat those lobsters better – in the water, on the boat, at the dock and in storage.
“We kill more lobsters in our industry than most countries around the world produce,” Lavallée said.
Lobster quality is a big issue in the market, though parties in the supply chain might define quality differently.
Consumers focus, of course, on taste and texture of the lobster on their plates. Processors want lobsters with a high meat yield. Shippers who have to store lobsters for days or even months want hardshell lobsters that are lively and intact with no missing appendages and not preparing to molt.
“A lobster that molts in storage is going to be a dead lobster,” Lavallée said.
“There is a lot of pressure on us to handle lobsters the best way we can, but we don’t have the science to tell us what that is,” Lavallée said.
According to Lavallée, though they may look tough, lobsters easily can be damaged by rough handling. Legs can break off when a fisherman hauls a trap up over the rail of the boat. Shells can easily puncture if lobsters are tossed onto the table where their claws are banded or stuffed into a crate that is already too full.
Any one of those injuries ultimately can kill a lobster, and dead lobsters don’t sell. The Canadian and U.S. lobster industries, Lavallée said, suffer “5 to 10 percent shrinkage” before the product reaches consumers. That’s a lot of lobster and a lot of money left on the table.
Last year, according to the Department of Marine Resources, the average boat price for lobster was $4.09 per pound. Lavallée estimated that careless handling killed about one to two percent of the lobsters brought aboard a boat. That translates, Lavallée said, to a loss of at least $4 for every 100-pound crate landed at the dock.
In 2015, Maine lobstermen landed more than 121 million pounds of lobsters – more than 1.2 million crates. Based on Lavallée’s calculations, that would translate to a loss of some $5 million to fishermen.
Though their shells might suggest otherwise, lobsters are highly susceptible to stress, and fishermen who take a few simple steps to reduce that stress will land more live, and saleable, lobsters.
Part of what makes lobsters so tricky to handle is their physiology. Unlike mammals, a lobster’s stomach lies behind its head, its heart is beneath its “back” and its nerve cord runs inside the soft bottom of the body. Lobsters also have an open circulatory system in which blood is ultimately disbursed into the animal’s tissue. So when a lobster is injured, it will bleed easily. Lobsters are also extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and have to expend huge amounts of energy to adjust their own temperature.
All those factors mean that fishermen should be careful hauling traps aboard so that legs and claws sticking through the bottom don’t break off. It also means that lobsters should be handled carefully, and one at a time, on the boat. “One hand, one lobster,” Lavallée said.
Also key is the how lobsters are kept while on board. Banding tables need to be padded, cool and moist. Holding tanks need to be filled with cool, well-oxygenated water.
Lavallée also cited evidence that lobsters do better when their traps are hauled to the surface at a slower rather than faster pace. Lobster quality deteriorates to some extent on rainy days.
When lobsters are landed, it’s important not to stuff crates too full and that every lobster in the crate is right side up and pointing in the same direction. A lobster on its back can easily puncture the abdomen of a lobster place on top of it.
Careful handling is necessary when lobsters are on shore, too. They shouldn’t be exposed to the sun, wind or rain on the dock, or chilled by a blast of cold air in a refrigerated truck.
“I always say fishermen should use “two hands, a kiss and a pat on the back,” Lavallée said.
“If we change just a tiny bit the way we handle lobsters, it will make a huge difference,” Lavallée said.
There is plenty of empirical evidence that careful handling, the use of a set of “best practices,” brings good results.
Recently a group of Stonington lobstermen decided on their own to check out the impact of using some of the recommended best practices. According to Lavallée, the verdict among the fishermen was that better handling lead to landing a better quality lobster and that could mean “millions of dollars” to the fishermen.
“Superhero lobsters should bring back superhero shore prices,” Lavallée said. Before that happens, he said, the industry will have to adopt some kind of uniform grading standards.
“As an industry, we suck at being consistent in what we deliver,” Lavallée said.
The workshop was one of seven – one in each lobster management zone – Lavallée gave throughout the state, and the audience sizes varied widely.
Some 70 fishermen were on hand for a presentation in Rockland. Just 10 came to a morning event in Stonington.
Jason Joyce, an eighth-generation lobsterman from Swans Island, thought it was worth trekking to Ellsworth after a morning working on his gear.
“It makes me think,” Joyce said. “Guys are always looking for more bang for your buck, looking for a better way.”
The workshop was sponsored by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Lobster Community Alliance.