Thoughts on Quality, and the Great Maine Lobster Story of 2012

by Catherine Schmit

The Maine Lobster Festival is underway in Rockland, and there will be plenty of lobsters to go around—at an affordable price, too, given the recent surge in supply.
Depending on who you are, the abundance of Maine lobster has been

a. a concerning trend.
b. a blessing.
c. a curse.

If you answered (a), you’re likely a biologist, ecologist, or someone who works in Maine’s coastal economy and knows how many of our communities are dependent on the lobster industry. Those who worry about a continual increasing trend may tend to be pessimistic in nature. They may wonder, “What happens when the trend reverses?” or else think that this seemingly good news is somehow a sign of trouble below the surface.

If you answered (b), you might be a lobster harvester, because more lobsters are job security. Or you might be a chef, processor, or connoisseur, because more lobsters generally means lower prices.

If you answered (c), you also might be a lobsterman or a processor. Lower prices as a result of more lobsters can be a curse on fishermen who don’t get paid enough for their catch to cover expenses. Too many lobsters can be a curse on processors whose production schedules are rigidly arranged to coincide with traditional seasons, markets, and lobster behavior.

This summer, Maine lobstermen find themselves in yet another crisis, this one driven by the animals themselves. Warmer than normal spring temperatures triggered lobsters to molt earlier than usual, resulting in a sudden supply of soft-shelled or “shedder” lobsters at a time when processors were not ready for them. Down went the price and up went the shouts for a solution. And, since this is Maine and lobster and summer, media coverage increased rather predictably.

The stories had pictures of picturesque harbors, and told of diesel engines gone silent, and open waters empty of lobster boats. The New York Times published a dispatch from Stonington; in a bizarre leap of logic, The Washington Post blamed the “crustacean calamity” on President Obama, and The Day of New London, Connecticut, implied that soft-shelled lobsters were a different “variety,” mis-spelled the name of long-time Lobster Institute director Robert Bayer, and quoted southern New England seafood dealers as saying that a soft-shelled lobster is lower quality.

Wait a minute. “Quality” is a subjective term. A seafood dealer who has to ship lobsters hundreds of miles needs live lobsters with hard shells that can survive the journey. In this case, “quality” refers to the physical characteristics of the animal, but says nothing about taste, the kind of quality that might be of interest to those who like to eat lobster. It is true that soft-shelled lobsters don’t travel well, but that also means they’ll be fresh when you order them at the market or seafood restaurant. It is also true that soft-shells have less meat, but many people, this writer included, thinks this makes the meat taste better—sweeter, milder, more tender–and they look forward to the summer soft-shell season. And one consultant in USDA’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program has suggested that shedders be recast as “easy-peel lobster”—because the meat is easier to extract. Having recently devoured a soft-shelled lobster in a matter of minutes at Waterman’s Beach Lobster, I can attest to the soft-shell’s ease of peeling and speed of consumption. As my colleague Dana Morse said, ”It’s like a Christmas present in the summer, and a delicious one to boot!”

As for the TAA program, it’s part of what could be considered a minor revolution unfolding in the lobster industry these days. Participating lobstermen receive training in marketing, business planning, operations, and other potential economic opportunities for those with boats and a lot of useful knowledge. It is just one of several efforts to improve the situation with the lobster industry, but it’s helped to focus people back on the benefits of a quality product, and good marketing; both of which are of course important elements for success.

For many of the rest of us, the summer of 2012 won’t be successful until we get our fill of Maine lobster–the softer shell variety, please.