Few foods create as much excitement as lobsters. While not the most aesthetically pleasing fruit of the sea, these centre-plate crustaceans are universally coveted for their rich, sweet flavour and juicy texture.
The lobsters that consumers are most familiar with are the American and European clawed lobster varieties, Homarus americanus and Homarus gammarus. Both are coldwater species that live on either side of the northern Atlantic Ocean.
Of the two species, the americanus from Canada and northeast America is by far the most plentiful, which has also made it the most popular and affordable lobster in Europe as well as in catchers’ domestic markets.
As is the case in most commercial fisheries, lobster landings are the primary indicator of abundance and there has been a significant upward catch trend in recent decades. In the 10 years to 2012, landings in Canada and the United States increased by 70 percent to 72,000 metric tons and 65,000 metric tons, respectively. As a result, lobster is one of the most valuable fisheries and seafood exports for both countries.
Seasons & sustainability
Despite the high values involved, the fisheries remain very artisanal and this makes a significant contribution towards their sustainability. Lobsters are caught with baited traps, placed on the seabed. Small boats empty each trap’s catch every morning, except on Sundays, and then transport the live lobsters to local factories for processing.
While the simple catching process is the same in both countries, the fishermen focus on two very different times of the year – spring in Canada and autumn in Maine. It’s within these windows that buyers are the most active. Their goal is to secure a sufficient quantity of prime lobster to be able to provide their customers with a steady, year-round supply.
In Canada, the fishery opens on 1 May and closes on 30 June when the lobsters are most active and the quality is at its best. It’s then that the shell is hard and the lobster is full of meat. Whereas lobsters are usually in a state of static hibernation during winter months, when the water is cold. Furthermore, lobsters start moulting after June, during which time the lobster is soft and the meat content is low.
In autumn, Maine becomes the centre of the lobster world, with the best shellfish caught in the months of October and November.
Rather than regulate its fishery by quota, Canada has imposed a limit on licenses and a maximum number of traps per license holder. There are also restrictions on the minimum landing size of lobsters. Furthermore, all traps are tagged and fitted with built-in escape mechanisms to safely release small lobsters and fish. Undersized lobsters and egg-bearing females are also returned to the ocean. The Canadian lobster fishery is widely regarded as sustainably managed and some areas are currently working towards Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.
Very similar management measures have been taken to ensure sustainability in the United States where the minimum landing size is one pound (approx 454g).
In 2013, fishermen saw lobster prices slide as a result of very large catches. However, a hard winter in 2013/2014 caused a slow start to the new season in Canada and prices increased.
While catches have grown significantly following the thaw, the industry estimates the total catch will be lower than usual this season, and prices should remain at a higher level.
Fishermen and processors will also be buoyed by the very high demand for raw lobster tails and cooked meat this year, particularly from the US market.