Crustaceans commonly sold at grocery retail have a mixed record when it comes to sustainable sourcing.
At one end of the spectrum, about 95% of the American lobsters caught in Maine and Canada are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international non-profit that certifies fisheries that meet stringent sustainability standards aimed at protecting fish populations and the health of oceans.
Fisheries approved by MSC can use the group’s blue oval-shaped seal on their products.
Unlike lobsters, crabs sold in U.S. grocery stores are not typically certified sustainable, says Brian Perkins, regional director for the Americas in the MSC’s Washington, D.C., U.S. headquarters.
For years, Dungeness crab from the West Coast was certified, Perkins says. Producers dropped out of sustainability certification protocols, however, when they began shipping primarily to China. Now, he says, many are reevaluating whether to become certified again.
“Certified or not, though, it’s a really good fishery,” Perkins says of the West Coast Dungeness industry.
Shrimp, the most popular of crustaceans, lies somewhere in the middle on the sustainability scale. Most of the shrimp sold in supermarkets is imported from Asia and South America and is farm-raised, Perkins says. Most of that is certified by one or both organizations that are aquaculture counterparts of the MSC.
That said, even if product is sustainably certified, it often doesn’t bear a label indicating so at retail, Perkins says.
Wild-caught shrimp from the U.S. Gulf Coast sold at retail is not certified, though a number of producers are considering doing so, Perkins says. Some Mexican wild-caught product, which is typically sold at retailers on the West Coast, is certified by MSC.
Gulf coast shrimp faces a challenge this year because of monster rainstorms that hit Houston and other cities.
“All that water entering the gulf really had a negative impact on their catches,” Perkins says. “Certification requires funding, and in a year where they’re not getting all the catch they might otherwise, they could be reluctant to enter the process.”
Climate change already leaving its mark
Climate change is already affecting crustacean availability, and it could have a huge impact in the coming years, Perkins says.
Lobster fisheries, for example, used to run all the way from Long Island Sound in New York to northern Maine. Now, anything south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is what is known as a “remnant fishery,” where the water is too warm to breed.
And there is concern further north, too. “The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other body of water in the world because of limited inlet and outlet,” Perkins says. “Georges Bank forms a fence in front of it.”
Lobster catches in Maine have actually been growing on an annual basis, Perkins says. That’s due at least in part to the great conservation job Maine has done to preserve fisheries.
“They have a minimum size which is larger than other regions,” Perkins says. “That allows lobsters to reach maturity so they can spawn at least once before they’re caught. There’s also a maximum size, so if a lobster is over a certain size it can’t be taken, which preserves the ‘root stock,’ as it were, in the water. And female lobsters, if they have visible eggs, have to be thrown back and their tales v-notched, so that when they’re caught again, lobsterman realize it’s an egg-bearing female.”
That said, there could be another reason for increased production in Maine, Perkins says.
“Are catches increasing because of all of those efforts, or because other lobsters are moving further north? Will we someday see fisheries north of Newfoundland, or near Greenland?”
In addition to warm waters, ocean acidification, which has affected shellfish production in the U.S. already, could have an impact on lobster and crab production, Fisher says. “It’s kind of a one-two punch.”
Getting the word out
Communicating the importance of sustainability to consumers is still a work in progress, Perkins says.
“It would be great to have more product identified. But until consumers start asking for it, it’s really challenging, especially with lobsters.”
Some Canadian companies, he says, are banding or tagging MSC-certified lobsters, and some supermarkets require that product purchased be MSC-certified — but then they don’t feel compelled to carry the message forward to consumers.
“The response we get is, ‘Consumers are not asking for this, so why should we pay a few cents more a pound to do it,’” Perkins says.
To help encourage producers and retailers to promote sustainability, the MSC launched a consumer awareness campaign in October with the specific goal, Perkins says, of helping consumers to understand that utilizing the group’s blue fish logo or another certification tag is “a simple way to make choices that are good for them and good for the ocean, too,” he says.
Fresh lobster: from foodservice to retail
New York-based restaurant chain Luke’s Lobster, which has locations in the U.S. and Asia, is now delivering its world-class lobster to retail.
Luke’s Maine-style lobsters are now available at almost all Whole Foods Market locations in the U.S.
“We're very excited to bring a taste of Maine to our fans far and wide with Luke's at-home lobster kits,” according to the company. “We're proud to be giving a percentage of sales of our lobster kits right back to the source: our partners at the Tenants Harbor Fisherman's Co-Op and Cranberry Isles Fishermen's Co-Op in Maine.”