News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, November 1, 2012
Study shows better handling reduces lobster injuries more than 70 percent

by Jessica Brophy

A local study conducted in waters around Stonington shows implementing six best lobster-handling practices can reduce lobster injury rates more than 70 percent.

The study, commissioned by the town of Stonington and financed by a Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was contracted and carried out by Penobscot East Resource Center.

The study looked at how lobster is handled by lobstermen as it is taken from the trap and held on the boat. Lobsters can be injured easily, said Holly Eaton, community liaison for Penobscot East, especially during the summer months when lobster shells are soft. While the study did not find a statistically significant higher mortality rate within three days of monitoring, Eaton said stressed or injured lobsters are less likely to survive longer-term. Additionally, lobsters with a cracked shell or missing legs are usually not sold on the live market because it is not “plate-ready.” This means it is worth less.

Eaton explained how the study worked and what it might mean for Stonington lobster in the future.

“We had four control boats, two in Eastern Bay and two in Western,” said Eaton.

Those four boats out of Greenhead Lobster agreed to adopt certain practices deemed to reduce lobster injury. Ten sample lobsters were taken from each of those four boats whenever those boats went out during August, and ten lobsters from four other randomly selected boats. The collected lobsters were labeled and their conditions recorded. The lobsters were then monitored for three days in Greenhead Lobster tanks.

When assessing the health of landed lobsters, Eaton said the research group noted whether the lobster was weak or lively, able to hold its claws up, if it had cracks or dents in the carapace or claws, whether its snout was broken or the fins on the lobster’s tail or if there were punctures to the undercarriage.

Eaton said there was general interest from fishermen in the project, which she said was likely due to the low boat price this summer.

“We weren’t there to say, you’re doing it wrong,” said Eaton. “We were there sharing information and offering options.” She said many fishermen asked her to measure the dissolved oxygen in their holding tanks.

As part of the project, an eight-minute video modeling the best handling practices was produced by Opera House Arts with the assistance of Maine Sea Grant. The video will be copied and distributed to lobstermen next month.

“Sometimes it’s easy to forget they’re animals,” said Eaton of lobster.

Eaton says the study shows best handling practices could reduce injuries and improve the quality of the product. When asked why lobstermen should care about the longevity of the product after it is landed and they are paid, Eaton said, ideally, the whole community and fleet need to commit to better quality product.

“That way, Stonington can say we have the best lobster, and here’s why,” said Eaton. While it may not make an impact in the short term, Eaton thinks if better handling becomes common practice, over time dealers will experience less shrinkage (mortality of landed lobster) and be able to pass along a better price to fishermen.

“It ends up not being about one guy,” said Eaton. “Everybody has to believe in the Stonington brand and of landing a consistently plate-ready lobster.”

Eaton said the next project involves testing lobster’s bacteria levels during the healthy times of year (such as now) to establish a baseline. Then, if there are peaks in mortality rates during the summer months, more testing could determine whether bacteria plays a role in those peaks.

The six Best Handling Practices adopted by the test boats included the following:

After a trap has been broken, the trap is not slid over the toe-rail, but rather lifted and turned as much as possible to reduce damage to legs and claws that are outside of the trap.

Lobsters placed on a cushioned banding station instead of a hard surface. The cushion can be seaweed, rope or bait, anything to protect the underside of the lobster.

Lobsters treated like eggs, following the adage, “One hand, one lobster.” No gathering up of multiple lobsters with both arms.

Careful monitoring of water quality and circulation in an effort to keep tank temperatures cool and dissolved oxygen levels high.

No dumping of lobsters from barrels or crates.