Add ‘Sustainable’ to List of Lobster’s Charms

The Portland Press Herald
Saturday, June 19, 2010

— How many foods have had as many twists in their story as the Maine lobster?

When Europeans first arrived here, lobsters were so plentiful they were used to fertilize fields, bait hooks and feed prisoners.

By the 19th century they became the ultimate luxury food, shipped live to the world’s fanciest restaurants. Gilded Age tycoon ”Diamond” Jim Brady is said to have liked to stuff down six or seven every day for an afternoon snack.

In our time they have become the iconic symbol of Maine, appearing on licence plates and beer openers.

But they have also become the cause of animal rights activists, who see the lobster’s traditional fate, dropped into a pot of boiling water, to be less than humane.

Its next act though has an another dramatic quick change.

Lobsters are now the go-to sea food for people who want to eat ethically. The key word is ”sustainable,” and Maine lobsters are now seen a way to take from the ocean without leaving a gaping hole in the food chain — kind of like the free-range chicken or grass-fed beef of the underwater world.

The unofficial confirmation of this came last week, when New York Times food writer Mark Bittman identified Maine lobster as one of three sustainable fisheries from which he could publish recipes without feeling guilty about the cost to the planet.

If that isn’t good enough news for the lobster industry — which is currently coping with a period of low prices brought on by slack demand — there’s more.

The other two fisheries, mackerel and squid, don’t offer very stiff competition in either the culinary or the icon department.

In 1994, Bittman published his first book, ”Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking.” When he was asked by his publisher to revise it last year, he declined.

”The cooking remains unchanged, but the buying has become a logistical and ethical nightmare,” Bittman wrote in the Times article.

Stores and restaurants cannot or will not always provide accurate information about the source of piece of fish. A halibut steak could come from six different species, four of which should be avoided depending on how they were caught.

Species of fish he promoted in his book have since become threatened from over-fishing.

Farm-raised fish created other problems. They eat feed made from wild-caught species, Bittman writes, they are treated with antibiotics and the waste created by ”the cage-raised chicken of the sea” causes local environmental problems. Fish that escape may breed with and weaken native species.

But then there are lobsters. They crawl along the sea bottom, climbing in and out of traps where they find food. If they happen to be inside when the trap is pulled, they take a quick trip to the surface.

But if they are too small or otherwise unsuitable, they go over the side to crawl around some more. Maine lobstermen have carefully managed their fishery, so the catch stays fairly constant over the years.

While Bittman’s endorsement offers lower case ”sustainable” status, the big ”S” certification may soon be on its way.

Scientists from the London-based Marine Stewardship Council are reviewing data collected from the Maine lobster trap fishery that could result in receiving the organization’s seal of approval. That would give Maine lobstermen another marketing tool and open their product to markets, particularly in Europe, that would otherwise be closed. Only 47 fisheries in the world have received the certification, and the label gives consumers a path through the confusing choices Bittman wrote about.

John Hathaway, the CEO of Shucks Maine Lobster Co., which processes and ships raw lobster meat, sees the sustainable label as the future of his industry. Since supply is stable the only way to fight low prices is to increase demand. Opening new markets while holding onto existing ones does that.

”Fishermen who follow these practices will be able to tell the world that, ‘Hey, this is a sustainable fishery,’ and it’s not just us saying it, these scientists have certified us.”

Hathaway who ships lobster meat fresh and frozen but not live, feels that he can also get around the squeamishness people feel about a food that they have to kill themselves.

Supermarkets don’t sell live chickens, so he understands that people may not feel comfortable buying a lobster in its wiggly state. Chefs don’t want to keep a lobster alive or pay someone to shuck it, they just want to cook it.

But a steaming whole lobster fresh from the sea to the pot to the plate still remains one of the best ways to pass a summer evening in Maine.

Just remember, as that juice dribbles down your chin, you are not only enjoying the same luxury as ”Diamond” Jim Brady — you’re practically an environmentalist.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be reached at 791-6481, or at:

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