Friday, April 10, 2009

Hypnotized Lobsters; Considering Eco-ability

This post is part of Fight Back Fridays! Hosted by Food Renegade :)

With all this talk recently of how to stay an Omnivore and eat sustainably, seafood often seems to be coming out on top. We have an idea how chicken, pork and cattle meat can substantially increase 
our carbon footprint and affect our health (antibiotics and synthetic chemicals etc). Seafood, especially gathered from local fishermen, is our fall back to feeling like we are making the right choice.

My favourite seafood of all time is lobster. I LOVE lobster. Being the daughter of a lobster fishermen in the most abundant area of Atlantic Lobster in the world I was fortunate enough to grow up eating lobster weekly. I know a lot about lobster and lobster fishing. Really, most people just don't care about the random bits of lobster information that I have in my head. Did you know that you can hypnotize a lobster by setting it on it's head and rubbing it's back??? True story. Living in Nova Scotia you would think that buying lobster would be the sustainable choice. Unfortunately the truth isn't that simple and I thought I'd share a bit of what I know with you to help inform your lobster buying decisions. :)

Let's start with regions and boring money stuff. District 34 is a fishing area off the shore of Yarmouth/Digby area in Nova Scotia and is considered one of (if not THE) most lucrative lobster industry in the world. There are 972 fishermen who hold licences in this district, and the majority of Atlantic lobsters sold around the world were caught here. Even Maine lobsters... GASP. Yup, many lobsters that are labeled as "Maine" lobsters were caught here, sold to Maine and afterwards considered a "Maine" lobster. I've heard that Maine was taking steps to help prevent this- but ask for more details when purchasing.

Lobster fishing licenses in District 34 can cost as couple hundred thousand dollars and are not able to be passed from father to son for free. Boats cost from 300 thousand to a million, depending on where you fish (inside vs outside). Each Captain with a license gets a certain amount of tags (or quota) which allots them a certain amount of traps they can fish, around 400 a year. Each trap can cost 100$ or more, with about 100 traps to be replaced each year. 

Ok, we have determined that lobster fishing costs a lot of money for the fisherman so you'd think that the price you're paying at the store or restaurant reflects this... Unfortunately, there are a LOT of similarities between Michael Pollan's farming description of political price control and the lobster industry. Fishermen in District 34 sell to their Co-Op, who then sells to a buyer, who sells... you get the picture. This year fishermen were getting as low as 2.50$lb during the time when they most needed to make a profit (the first two weeks of fishing).

So lets talk sustainability of lobster fishing in District 34 (where chances are your lobster came from). Lobster fishing season in District 34 is from November until May. These fishermen are fishing during the coldest and most dangerous seas of the year in order to attempt to regulate lobster population. In summer months lobsters have babies and shed their hard shells. They also move more inshore due to water temperature. In the winter months lobster move to deeper waters (which stay warmer) and usually have harder shells. I say usually because "offshore" lobsters fished by huge fishing boats can have softer shells and less meat resulting in a weaker market. When buying lobsters ask if they are offshore or inshore- it really makes a difference.

David Suzuki (a leading Canadian environmentalist) has many links on his website regarding how to make a sustainable seafood choice. rates Atlantic lobster as being the best choice and has a pdf article stating their research. The article is three years old and comments mostly on sustainability of population (good) and risk to ocean floor and other sealife (reasonably good). The article is really in depth and interesting... if you like reading about lobster fishing lol. From a "front line" perspective though, these past two years lobster yields have been dismally low. Fishermen are starting to wonder about population numbers and sustainability.

Other checklists that state Atlantic lobster as "best choice" are: Seafood Watch (which has more international info), Ocean Wise (which has sustainable restaurant info). David Suzuki's own "State of the Catch" has comprehensive info on Pacific Coast seafoods.

All this is great and I'm all for supporting local fishermen (my dad and brother especially!) but I do recognize that there is a lot more involved to making a truly eco-friendly choice than simply population density and by-catch risk. Here are a few more bits of info to consider when purchasing a lobster as an "eco" choice.

Mandated seasons help control overfishing and this year the fishermen are not permitted to fish on Sundays (most of the older generation didn't fish on Sunday anyway). Traps are easier on the ocean floor than dragging (scallops) although I'm sure Alli from Ocean Treasures could comment more on the real result of lobster traps (she's a marine biologist!). Due to high winds during winter months traps are beaten up pretty badly and need to be replaced. Many of these traps are lost on the ocean floor forever or just thrown into the landfill/dump (yes Nova Scotia still has dumps). Lobster traps are made from wire (with a rubbery-plastic coating), two cement blocks for weight, nylon netting to trap the lobster and bungee cord to keep the trap shut. So if on average each licence holder (Captain) lost 20 traps a year, that would be 19 440 traps accumulating on the ocean floor a year. Also, we need to think about all the miles of nylon rope that is used every year- loads and loads of plastic nurdles accumulating with the traps. Attached to these trawls of traps (with 4-10 per trawl) are buoys made from a funny styrofoam substance and repainted with lead paint every single year.

Lastly, boats use a LOT of fuel each day to steam out to their traps. This can range from 500$ worth of fuel a DAY for an inshore fishermen to much more for those fishing offshore and making two to three day trips. The final aspect and most obvious one, the further away you live from the Atlantic, the more fuel it has taken to get your lobster to your plate.

Conclusions? Making a sustainable seafood choice is complicated, just like choosing a sustainable meat choice. When comparing lobster to other seafoods like scallops, trawled haddock or halibut, it definitely comes out on top. But at the same time, believing that lobster is as sustainable as for example, organic farming, is ridiculous. I would love to hear Alli's perspective on current population conditions and environmental effects of gear. I love lobster and will continue to support my father and brother who work so hard at something they love. Especially if it means having lobster chowder... mmmmmm. In the meantime- check out this handy little printout you can carry with you while shopping to help make an informed choice!

Blessings and Happy Wind Moon!


  1. Wow. I grew up in Rhode Island, where there are a lot of lobster fisherman. I knew that about the low prices, but never really thought about the litter! Very interesting post. I found you on the Food Renegade list.

  2. Amazing stuff! Did you know I've NEVER cooked lobster before? I've eaten, but never cooked it. Now I'm inspired to try.

    Thanks for participating in today's Fight Back Fridays carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  3. Let me just say that as always issues surrounding a biological resource, money and tradition are complicated. From what I understand (a friend of mine studies lobster in LFA 34) is that population levels in LFA 34 are really high, based on data and fishermen's comments reflect this also. The area where the lobsters aggregate in the winter are fished by both sides of the border, however, we actually stop during breeding season whereas in Maine they fish year-round. This could lead to declines in the populations because they are fishing during the breeding season, but we also have no idea what the effects of climate change and ocean acidification are/will be. At least for things they can currently control, there are initiatives to protect gravid females (those holding eggs) in the USA called v-notching. I don't remember if this is also used in Canada but definitely is in the USA...EcoYogini you might know better than I...What the fishermen do is when they pull up a gravid female they cut a v-shaped notch in their tail and throw them back. The notch lasts I think up to 3 molts (when they shed their external skeleton for growth) which allows the female to reproduce for up to 3 more years because even if she does not have eggs the next time but still has the notch they must throw her back in. Also, in both Canada and the USA they have a minimum allowable size and there are HUGE fines if you are caught with juveniles or v-notched females. These are just some of the measures used to manage the fishery and according to many people in government and science it is a well managed fishery in this area, at least on the Canadian side. There are political issues surrounding it which is a source of tension between the USA and the fishing year-round and too many licenses are issued each fisherman gets less catch for their effort and there are many cross border conflicts, the tensions run high around these issues...after all it is their livelihood.

    With respect to the gear and other pollution, destruction of habitat, etc. I think it is one of the least impacting fisheries out there. Like every human activity there is an impact, now is it more or less than others it is hard to judge. If I had to choose between lobster and scallops that are wild harvested (ie: dragged) and not aquacultured then I would definitely choose lobster. In my opinion, at least along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia it is well managed (we won't go into the Gulf of St. Lawrence fishery) and not all inshore fishing uses huge trap lines. All of the coastal fishermen only set on trap at a time so the impact is even smaller! Lost traps get washed up on shore where they can be scavenged for the functioning part and bricks. So like I said at the beginning, it is complicated and I didn't even get to why the lobster populations are so high!!!! Ok I'll tell is thought that the populations are so high because we fished out all of their predators (cod and other groundfish) essentially we are filling the empty spot in the food chain left by our legacy of overfishing groundfish species...a huge convoluted mess that essentially all comes back to our unsustainable fishing practices! So when you eat seafood choose wisely and really educate yourself about the particular fisheries and be critical of everything you read even the best intentioned documents have a lot of misinformation. I wish it was as easy as those seafood choice lists but it is not. Let's just say, I eat very little seafood mostly because I don't like it but if I had to have a list of choices...Trap caught shrimp, aquacultured bivalves (mussels, oysters scallops), haddock, land aquacultured cod and Atlantic Nova Scotia lobster. I am sure there are other fisheries on the west coast and other parts of the world that would fall into my list but since I am not a big seafood eater I do not seek them out.

    Thanks EcoYogini for the post! If anyone has any questions feel free to drop by my blog and ask...if I don't know I will ask my friend who studies lobster. Cheers! Alli

  4. Alli: thank you so much!! I KNEW you'd have some awesome insights :)

    I knew there was some drama between US and Canadian fishing- I hear grumblings once in a while. I have heard about v-notching, but as far as I can tell they mostly just throw the females back. But then, I hear that they are not responsible for females that have eggs after they are caught and in the holding tanks.

    About the females and tinkers (small lobsters)- there are huge fines yes... but I admit to have eaten tinkers before... In the summertime... with internal politics between inshore and offshore fishermen it gets tricky. Offshore boats are bigger, burn more fuel and are better equipped to fish- they go offshore when the lobsters move out, and follow them back inshore- creating tension between fishermen and flooding the market with weak lobsters.... but then. That's a whole other issue.

    Unfortunately, from what I know salvaging traps found on the shore is rare- mostly because it's more effort than it's worth. Perhaps in different districts, the only thing I know they salvage is buoys. Lobster traps is a lucrative business (as my uncle would tell you- he owns Fox Hill Wire Traps).

    I didn't comment on that aspect- but lets just say that keeping the oceans clean isn't their top priority. An example: when I was younger we used to take the boat out in the summer and for fun throw an ENTIRE bag of rubber bands out in the ocean. A quick swim off the wharf will reveal fridges, sinks, car tires etc. I wonder where the offshore traps go to?

    Something else I didn't comment on was the aboriginal tensions with licensing... but then that's a HUGE issue that I don't feel unbiased enough to even begin.

    I'm glad that I'm not the only one who thought those choice lists were a little too simple.

    Thank you so much for your insights and knowledge! So greatly appreciated! :)

  5. My Dad's side of the family is from Nova Scotia; I haven't been there in years but ate lots of lobster as a kid as well.

    Interesting to read all of this "insider" info on the industry, and the environmental concerns involved. Great post!

    I appreciate your taking the time to do a comparison like this, similar to the multiple analyses of meat/beef/chicken/pork out there.

  6. Hi Natalie,
    I'm glad this was helpful and "new" :)As I've been "home" in the fishing village these past few days for Easter, I've heard SO MUCH more about fishing. I forget how much it's a part of everything my family does... and I'm getting free lobster meat to make chowder! WOO :)

    I've decided to post my favourite lobster recipe ideas... as out of most of the seafood it's the most sustainable choice in eastern Canada/States :)


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