WALPOLE—Some lobsters inevitably don’t make it through the journey from trap to plate. Those untimely deaths along the way are known as “shrink” and the issue has been a thorn in the side of Maine’s most prized fishery for years.
“It’s a big deal,” said Annie Tselikis, the executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association.
At a time when the fishery is facing unprecedented threats and saw a dip in catch this past year, industry officials want to make sure every lobster that is pulled from the water can fetch the best price.
“If we are dealing with a slight decline in production from the harvest sector, we have to do everything to maximize it through the supply chain,” Tselikis said.
If a lobster dies before it can get to a customer, it’s a loss to the whole system; a waste in both an environmental and economic sense.
A team of researchers from the University of Maine Lobster Institute is trying to reduce this waste by gathering data through several different devices, including Fitbit-like activity trackers attached to the lobsters that will monitor things like heart rate and other conditions around the crustaceans as they’re shepherded through the supply chain.
“The main objective is to identify the stress points in the supply chain between trap and the dealers’ storage facilities,” said Rick Wahle, a zoologist and the head of the Lobster Institute.
In most cases, the solutions to stop shrink probably won’t be super technical. It could be as simple as increasing circulation in live tanks or reducing handling times. The trouble is finding the weak links.
The lobster Fitbits, known as the less sexy “crustacean heart activity trackers,” or C-HATs, will continuously track a lobster’s heart rate as it travels through the chain. The tech looks like an oversized backpack, roughly the size of a GoPro camera, that is strapped to the lobster’s back after it is pulled from the trap.
The C-HAT was created by Ben Gutzler, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. The device came together after years of tinkering on an ever-evolving design and Gutzler hoped to continue to improve on them, making them smaller and adding extra battery life. He was also excited for other possible uses in the future.
“It’s pretty flexible and adaptable,” he said. “I think the system shows a lot of promise for a lot of cool questions.”
A sensor package, known as the Mocklobster, will also travel with the lobsters and record temperature, motion and light. Another monitor, known as the seahorse, will track the speed and direction of currents at six wharfs where lobsters are landed, two each in southern Maine, midcoast and Downeast.
After the data is gathered, the scientists will correlate the physiological response of the lobster to its environmental conditions, keeping an eye out for sudden shocks or other disturbances to the lobster’s activity.
From there, they’ll devise mitigation strategies to try and keep the lobsters in tip-top condition.
There currently isn’t a lot of data on how lobsters handle the supply chain trip, said Cassandra Leeman, a graduate student working on the study. Research was conducted in Canada about 10 years ago, but the Maine supply chain is different, making it hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison.
“In terms of this specific industry and this supply chain, we don’t have a ton of information,” she said.
Wahle, Leeman and the rest of the team were able to have a preliminary run with the equipment last season, though it is too early to point out exactly where stressors take place. This coming season, Leeman hopes to track eight lobsters a week until later summer or early fall.
“The more data we have, the better it is,” she said.
Shrink is a relatively small issue compared to some of the other looming problems for the industry, but it’s been a chronic pain and dealers want to fetch the best price they can for every lobster.
Regardless of the year’s catch, not wasting any lobsters and taking care of them until they get to the plate is the right thing to do, said Curt Brown, a marine biologist at Ready Seafood, another partner in the program.
“We really need to treat every lobster harvested on the coast of Maine like an egg and the rest will take care of itself,” he said.