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. Seachoice.org 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!