Dana Rice's family has been lobstering in Maine waters for
generations. He was 7 when he first accompanied his grandfather as he
checked his traps in Birch Harbor.
Now his 7-year-old grandson has started donning his oilskins to go out
with his father on occasion.
That cultural heritage, the opportunity afforded young people and
the abundant natural resource are critical, Rice says, for maintaining
an industry — and a way of life.
Key to the whole process is the Lobster Institute at the University
of Maine, he contends.
"The institute brings people together and gives them a forum in
which to discuss these things," says Rice, owner of D.B. Rice
Fisheries in Birch Harbor and a member of the New England Fishery
Management Council. "If it wasn't there, there basically would be no
other place for us to discuss what's on our minds and find common
ground to work toward common goals."
It seems almost too simplistic to think that open, regular dialogue
between Canadian and American lobstermen, pound owners, scientists,
processors and distributors can yield far-reaching results. But ask
those in the state's lobster industry what difference the institute
makes and they'll inevitably cite the communication it has facilitated
in the past two decades.
"Prior to the formation of the institute, there was real mistrust
between fishermen and scientists, says Cathy Billings, an assistant
director at the Lobster Institute. "Lobstermen saw researchers as
trying to control the industry without even being on the boats, seeing
what the fishermen see day in and out. The institute built a bridge
Bridge building was achieved by fostering relationships, says Bob
Bayer, the institute's executive director since 1995. "There were many
splinter groups from Newfoundland to New York, but we were able to get
them in the same room, talking together, and represented on our board
At the fourth annual Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen's Town Meeting, held
last April in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, fisherman Ashton Spinney
reminded the audience of 60 what brought them together to discuss
topics ranging from the rising costs of lobster fishing, including
fuel and bait; price structuring that occurs between fisherman and
consumer; and reconciliation of environmental needs with economic
"We may come from different geographic areas," he said, "but we all
share and rely on the same natural resource. Sustaining a shared
resource calls for constructive sharing of information. Our knowledge
grows by this sharing of observations and experiences. The greater our
knowledge, the better our decisionmaking will be."
The Lobster Institute is both a conduit and catalyst for
research to meet industry needs. Working with a network of experts and
scientists, many of whom are at the University of Maine, the institute
has tackled a number of issues related to lobsters, starting in 1988
with research on lobster shell disease in tidal pounds and stock
assessment. That research was followed by studies on alternative
lobster baits, a patented technique for improving yield and shelf life
of processed lobster, and development of a test for law enforcement to
determine if female lobsters were illegally scrubbed of their eggs.
Scientists now affiliated with the Lobster Institute have been
studying shell disease since the mid-1980s. Most recently, research by
a UMaine graduate student is exploring the correlation of the disease
to environmental health using GIS and maps indicating heavy metal
deposits. Also under development is a low-cost hatchery to be used as
a rearing facility for stock enhancement.
In addition, the institute has focused on research to create
value-added lobster products like extruded snack foods for people and
dog biscuits made from processing by-products, such as mince and
In 2006–07, the institute helped channel awards totaling more than
$1 million in state and federal funding into lobster-related research.
The institute is now planning a study on the impact of the lobster
culture on tourism.
And the institute has launched a $4.8 million capital campaign to
ensure future funding for research and administration. Organizers hope
the campaign will help establish a regional lobster health coalition
of researchers and fund an annual lobster health survey.
"In Maine, the lobster industry and the state didn't realize for a
long time how important lobstering is to the economy and the culture,"
says Rice. "When you're competing to make a living, you take for
granted what you're doing, but the reality is there's no other
fisheries like ours left. Without this culture, this would be just
another place to live."
Bayer came to UMaine in 1972 as a poultry expert, teaching courses
in animal nutrition and physiology. He worked with a master's student
who wanted to pursue research on the nutritional requirements of
lobsters in tidal pounds. In another project, Bayer and a graduate
student developed and patented a vaccine to control gaffkemia or red
tail disease that afflicts lobsters in captivity.
By 1974, Bayer turned his research attention to crustaceans.
"No one on campus at that time was doing anything with lobsters,"
Bayer says. Talking with fishermen, it was clear they were not getting
the help they needed.
"The people are what keep me involved with the lobster fishery and
industry. The science is great, but the fact is it also directly
affects the lives of people in the U.S. and Canada who rely on this
industry for a living. It's an interesting community, the way they
rely on each other and present their problems to us. Some of it has to
do with their history and the joy of getting out and doing a day's
hard work. Most tell you there's nothing they'd rather do."
The institute has become a trusted resource for the lobster
industry, a place to turn for the most accurate, up-to-date
information, Billings says.
"I've always described the institute as industry driven," she says.
"Lobstermen came to us (UMaine) saying they wanted this. They were
very proactive in wanting to secure their fishery because it's a very
generational endeavor. They're bringing their grandchildren in, just
like they came in with their grandfathers. They have a personal stake
in it beyond the paycheck."
As part of Maine Sea Grant at the university, the institute was
established 20 years ago with the help of the Maine Lobstermen's
Association, the Maine Lobster Pound Association and the Maine
Import/Export Lobster Dealers. By that time, Herb Hodgkins of Hancock,
head of the Maine Lobster Pound Association, was already tapping the
research expertise of UMaine to study nutrition and disease control in
crustaceans in captivity.
"The Maine Lobster Pound Association got off the ground with
research the university did on lobsters in storage and red tail
disease," Hodgkins says. "We founded the association to support
(further) research, then became one of the cornerstones for developing
the Lobster Institute."
While the Lobster Institute does not advocate for the lobster
industry, it does serve as an information clearinghouse for crustacean
enthusiasts worldwide. The phone calls and e-mail come not just from
people in the industry, but also from the public.
The zaniest question for the lobster experts: How do I grow
lobsters in my basement? (The answer: It's not economically feasible;
in the wild, it takes five to seven years for a lobster to grow to a
legally marketable size.)
An example of a more serious phone call: News that a shipment of
U.S. lobsters has been turned back in Italy on grounds that lead
levels are too high. In response, the Lobster Institute put Italian
authorities in touch with researchers whose work has clearly shown
that lead levels in American lobsters are well below minimums set by
the Food and Drug Administration.
A recent call came from a dealer in Switzerland who wanted to know why
the lobsters he recently purchased were not doing well.
"We've been called lobster 911," says Billings. "If there's a
problem or a question, we're typically the first called. If we can't
give them the answer with Bob's expertise, we connect them to the
person who can."
Concern about the environment, particularly water quality as it
affects lobster health, remains one of the leading topics of
discussion among fishermen. That was particularly true in 1999 when
lobstermen from Connecticut and New York called Bayer to lend
expertise on the lobster die-off in Long Island Sound. While nothing
could stem the die-off, Bayer was able to provide research findings
that helped the lobstermen better understand the role environmental
contaminants, particularly pesticides, can play in lobster mortality.
"We're primarily here to ensure that problems don't crop up for the
industry by staying proactive in lobster health," Billings says.
"Science is no longer a dirty word with lobstermen. They know they
need to have research to keep the fishery going."
The fishery continues to evolve, says Rice, which makes it even
more imperative that all those with a vested interest in the industry
constantly keep the resource — and access to it — in mind.
"It's the same old creature with no brain that keeps us humans on
our toes," he says.
by Margaret Nagle
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