How simple carelessness is costing Maine lobstermen millions

For all the backbreaking work that Maine lobstermen do just to make a living, it’s unbelievable to think that simple carelessness is costing their catches an enormous amount of value, resulting in lost income for the entire industry as a whole, but that’s exactly what’s happening.

Known as “shrinkage,” bad habits by lobstermen such as swinging a trap aboard too quickly with lobster claws hanging out the bottom, tossing keepers too roughly onto the banding table, not keeping fresh water pumping through the holding tanks, allowing them to be rained on, or stacking them into crates upside down when it’s time to sell them- this and more can all lead to dead lobsters.

Here’s a humorous video about shrinkage produced by the Penobscot East Resource Center in 2014:

On April 20, Dr. Jean Lavallée, a veterinarian from Prince Edward Island, spoke at a workshop in Ellsworth sponsored by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance, which was attended by a couple dozen lobstermen and other maritime workers with ties to the lobstering industry.

At the workshop, Lavallée focused on shrinkage, saying that in Maine more lobsters are killed by carelessness within the industry than most countries produce overall.

He continued, saying that in order for the value of the lobster stock to go up, they need to be treated better in the water, on the boat, at the dock and in storage.

Banded lobsters for sale on Casco Bay, Maine. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

Banded lobsters for sale on Casco Bay, Maine. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

What most people might not realize about lobsters is that although they’ve survived for millenia and they appear to be very tough creatures, they’re actually very susceptible to changes in their environment or rough handling.

Also, because lobsters have an open circulatory system, which means that blood is disbursed throughout their shell and into their tissue, even just a small crack in their shell means they will likely bleed to death.

While it’s easy for lobstermen to shake off a dead lobster or two each day as they handle several hundreds or even thousands of the creatures every time they haul their traps, when the numbers are laid out it becomes a bit tougher to ignore.

According to Lavallée, in the Canadian and U.S. lobster industries, the overall catches see 5 to 10 percent shrinkage before the product reaches consumers.

Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

He estimates that about 1 to 2 percent of the lobsters brought aboard by lobstermen are killed before they even reach the dock, which translates to a loss of about $4 for every 100 pounds sold.

In 2015 alone, Maine lobstermen brought home more than 121 million pounds, which based on Lavallée’s estimate equates to a loss of roughly $5 million before they’ve even made it off the boats.

“As an industry, we suck at being consistent in what we deliver,” Lavallée said.

“If we change just a tiny bit the way we handle lobsters it will make a huge difference.”

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.