Saturday, May 20, 2017

Maine Is Drowning in Lobsters

In his famous 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," biologist Garrett Hardin singled out ocean fishing as a prime example of self-interested individuals short-sightedly depleting shared resources:
Professing to believe in the "inexhaustible resources of the oceans," they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.
The whales have actually been doing a lot better lately. Fish in general, not so much.

Then there's the Maine lobster. As University of Maine anthropologist James M. Acheson put it in his 2003 book "Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry":
Since the late 1980s, catches have been at record-high levels despite decades of intense exploitation. We have never produced so many lobsters. Even more interesting to managers is the fact that catch levels remained relatively stable from 1947 to the late 1980s. While scientists do not agree on the reason for these high catches, there is a growing consensus that they are due, in some measure, to the long history of effective regulations that the lobster industry has played a key role in developing.
Two of the most prominent and straightforward regulations are that lobsters must be thrown back in the water not only if they are too small but also if they are too big (because mature lobsters produce the most offspring), and that egg-bearing females must not only be thrown back but also marked (by notches cut in their tails) as off-limits for life. Acheson calls this "parametric management" -- the rules "control 'how' fishing is done," not how many lobsters are caught -- and concludes that "Although this approach is not supported by fisheries scientists in general, it appears to work well in the lobster fishery."

It's a seafood sustainability success story! But there's been an interesting twist since Acheson wrote those words in 2003. That already-record-setting Maine lobster harvest has more than doubled:

Sustainable fisheries practices alone can't really explain why today's lobster take is more than seven times the pre-2000 average. What can? The most universally accepted answer seems to be that depletion of the fish that used to eat young lobsters (mainly cod, landings of which peaked in Maine in 1991 and have fallen 99.2 percent since) has allowed a lot more lobsters to grow big enough for people to catch and eat them. The tragedy of one commons has brought unprecedented bounty to another.

Warming ocean temperatures have also improved lobster survival rates. Canada's Atlantic provinces have experienced a lobster boom similar to Maine's. Not so in the New England states to the south and west of Maine, where the water is now apparently a little too warm and lobster harvests peaked in the 1990s. Within Maine, which now accounts for more than 80 percent of U.S. lobsters, the sweet spot for lobstering has moved from the state's southern coast to the cooler northeast. (...)

This leaves the Maine (and Canadian) lobster industry with another interesting challenge: how to find enough buyers for all those lobsters so that prices don't collapse. As you can see from the chart below, they've mostly succeeded:

Affluent Chinese diners have been one reason. This January, five chartered 747s full of live lobsters flew from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to China to supply Chinese New Year feasts. Maine's lobsters tend to make the voyage less dramatically, in regularly scheduled flights from Boston, but $27 million worth of them were shipped to China in 2016.

The national and even global spread of the lobster roll has also helped a lot. I came to Maine on a trip organized by Luke's Lobster, a fast-casual restaurant chain that now has 21 "shacks" in the U.S. and eight more scheduled to open this year, along with six licensed locations in Japan. Founder Luke Holden was an investment banker in New York when he and former food writer Ben Conniff opened the first restaurant in the East Village in 2009, but he's also the son of a Maine lobsterman who owned the state's first lobster-processing plant.

Luke's Lobster now has its own plant in Saco, Maine, that processes between 4 and 5 percent of the state's lobster harvest. Processing, in this case, means cooking and picking the meat out of the claws and knuckles for Luke's lobster rolls 4 while cleaning and freezing the raw tails and clawless "bullet" lobsters for sale to restaurants, groceries and such.

Holden's father, Jeff, says that tails used to sell for much more than claw meat. Now lobster rolls, for which tail meat is generally too chewy, have flipped the price equation.

All in all, it's a fascinating tale of adaptation, marketing and lobster logistics. There is one big catch, though, beyond the vague fears that the lobsters can't be this abundant forever. It's that the bait used to lure the lobsters into traps -- herring -- isn't as abundant as they are. Herring stocks along the Maine coast haven't collapsed as some other fisheries have, but the catch has fallen in recent years, to 77 million pounds in 2016 from 103 million in 2014 and more than 150 million some years in the 1950s and 1960s.

On average, it takes about a pound of herring to catch a pound of lobster.

by Justin Fox, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images