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Talking Lobsters


Talking Lobsters
To strengthen the fishery, the Lobster Institute has spent two decades keeping the lines of communication open

Talking Lobsters

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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 between them."

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 of advisers."

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 realities.

"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 shell.

In 200607, 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
November-December, 2007

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