Monday, March 17, 2014
SENA14: Maine Lobster from Trap to Table
Homarus americanus. The American Lobster. The Pride of the waters of Maine.
Pliny the Elder used to refer to lobsters as locustae, locusts of the sea. The Old English word for lobster was loppestre, which might be related to loppe, which means "spider." By the 17th century, the term lobster also became an insult, like calling someone a "rascal" and it would later be used as a derogatory term for the British redcoats. Though there are a number of different species of lobster, if you ask someone from New England, they'll tell you that a Maine lobster stands at the pinnacle, and many people from around the country would agree. From a clam bake to lobster rolls, lobster often fits into some of the best memories of summer in New England.
Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative presented a special session at the Seafood Expo North America (SENA) on Maine Lobster from Trap to Table. The two panelists included Carl Wilson, the lead Lobster Biologist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and Michele Ragussis, a Food Network Celebrity Chef.
Carl Wilson spoke first, giving us some scientific info on the lobster, as well as some basics on sustainability. He began stating that the Maine lobster industry is a true success story in the Northeast. For about the last thirty years, lobster landings have been increasing, after about fifty years of stable numbers. The warming of the waters has contributed to a boom in the lobster population, and landings have essentially doubled in the last 5-7 years. At that time, Carl did not address the reasons for the change in water temperatures, which is likely due to climate change. Though lobster range a good distance up the Eastern coast, the greatest concentration of lobsters is in the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The value of the Maine lobster industry is the second largest in the U.S., second only to Sea Scallops. For Maine, the lobster industry is vital, and occupies 70% of the value of all Maine fisheries. Stonington, Maine is the largest port for lobster in the entire state.
Next, Carl discussed some of the life history and ecology of the lobster. It is a long lived creature, with some living as long as forty years. When a lobster reaches 5-8 years old, it usually then meets the legal size for capture. Lobsters grow through molting, which generally occurs during the summer. The larger they get, the less natural predators that bother them. When they are smaller and more vulnerable, they often hide, to avoid potential predators. There are three larval stages of a lobster, and then a postlarval phase before they become juveniles. Lobsters forage over a broad range of habitats, and are also migratory, with some lobsters traveling as much as 200 miles.
We then acquired some fascinating historical data concerning the capture of lobsters. For example, a law requiring a minimum size for capture was enacted back in 1883 and fifty years later there was a law noting the maximum size that could be caught. In 1948, the V Notch program was started where female lobsters were eggs had their tails notched and then were freed. The notch would indicate to others that the lobster should not be harvested. There was also some historical notes on gear restrictions, such as the requirement for escape vents in 1980.
For sustainability, there is a three pronged approach, including Science, Management and Industry. They all do their part, keeping an eye on stock assessments and potential problems. For now, everything seems great but Carl noted that change is coming. The system is designed to adapt to change though dealing with change is always a challenge. For now, enjoy all the lobster you desire as there is plenty available from the fisheries of Maine.
Pearl in Rockland, Maine, gave some advice and suggestions on breaking down a lobster, and also cooking it. Her preference is steaming over boiling and she really enjoys pasta dishes with lobster. She also mentioned that lobster is a great addition to breakfast. You should always keep your empty lobster shells to make an easy stock. But the key is experimenting with different recipes and preparations as lobster is so versatile. As Michele said, "The kitchen is your playground."
Carl interjected at one point, noting that they do not recommend that anyone eat the tomalley, that greenish stuff you find inside the lobster shell. Some people see it as the best part of the lobster, however it can be deadly. The tomalley might contain toxins associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning and cooking your lobster won't prevent that toxicity. It is still only a low risk, but something to consider the next time you have a lobster feast.