By Doreen Leggett
There has been loose talk that people shouldn’t eat lobster because harvesting the crustacean is harmful to the environment, and that the Massachusetts industry is in decline.
None of that is true.
“I want you to remember what you heard tonight about lobster being a sustainable, local fishery and you can feel good about eating it,” said Aubrey Church, policy manager at the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Church was speaking at the non-profit’s November Meet the Fleet, one of a handful of events held during the year when commercial fishermen share the experience of working on the water, and local chefs share great food from the ocean.
Sean Leach, one of three lobstermen at the most recent event, stood with his dad Mark, also a lobsterman out of Harwich, and Bradley Louw, who lobsters out of Dennis. Behind them was an enlarged graph of lobster landings. A crowd of close to 80 looked on.
Landings for the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank, where the three fish, show a sharp upward trajectory; 40 million pounds in the 1980s to around 140 million pounds today.
“This is not a fishery in decline,” Sean Leach said.
Sean also passed around so-called weak rope, which lobstermen are required to use to protect whales. The weak rope, designed to break when it comes in contact with a whale calf, is among many safeguards in place. Others include sinking groundlines, no floating buoy lines, minimum number of traps per trawl, and a closure of more than three months for Cape Cod Bay, past Provincetown to Nantucket and out 40 nautical miles.
“We are all trying to look out for the future,” Louw said.
Mark Leach said he was in a meeting with Canadian lobstermen recently who argued that for safety reasons they need floating lines in the water column that link traps. No you don’t, Leach said; Massachusetts lobstermen have been using lines tight to the bottom for years.
The Canadians weren’t pleased with him at all, Leach said to laughter.
Louw, who owns the F/V Renegade, said expenses have skyrocketed. A decade ago, a trap was $80, now it is $210; bait was $5 a box, now it is $100. All three fish more than 700 traps and can use five or six boxes of bait a day.
Louw contends with more environmental concerns because he often lobsters in Cape Cod Bay. Mark and Sean set traps off the backside of the Cape.
Seven lobster management areas all have different rules and regulations like maximum and minimum sizes and “v-notching” females for protection. A new regulation requires lobstermen to install a vessel monitoring system, so managers know their locations. Mark Leach somewhat affectionately calls the monitor his “ankle bracelet.”
Louw reported environmental concerns in Cape Cod Bay, which include dead zones linked to development on land and rising water temperatures, have killed lobsters.
Church said fishermen and scientists are paying attention to the growing effects of climate change. She said many lobstermen carry temperature loggers on their boats and the information collected is transmitted to researchers.
“Lobsters can remain happy and healthy in waters up to 68 degrees, then get stressed,” Church said.
Both Mark Leach and Louw started on offshore lobster boats. Leach moved from New Jersey to Harwich with his family when he was a freshman in high school, and found a big fleet of offshore lobster boats, most 60 feet in length, docked at Saquatucket.
Along with clamming, he worked on some of those boats and when he was at UMass Amherst getting his economics degree, fishing was on his mind. When he came back he started cod fishing as offshore lobster boats were expensive to purchase.
He bought his first lobster boat in 1985 and by 2001 pursued lobstering full time. He now has the Sea Holly III, docked at Wychmere Harbor.
“It’s been good, no complaints,” he said.
Sean Leach also went off-Cape for college, thinking he would get a job in accounting. He graduated from Suffolk in 2010.
“I did the most rational thing … I came back and started lobstering,” he said with a grin. “I built my first boat (F/V Jessica Beth) three years ago.”
Before he bought his boat, Louw lobstered on the F/V William Bowe, 10-day trips, at sea 240 days a year.
“It’s not just a job. It’s a way of life,” he said.
State-permitted boats, which Sean and Bradley own, need to be owner-operated and can fish from a half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset. Bradley also has a federal permit.
The trio was peppered with questions. Some wanted to know if the color of traps mattered; not that he can tell, said Sean. Others were curious about how often they pull traps; could be three days, could be 10. Sean brought a trap to show how lobsters are caught and how, if a trap is lost, the escape panels rust out so whatever was caught (which can be fish as well as lobster) can escape.
Ted Mahoney, chef and owner of Mahoney’s Bar and Grill in Orleans, also fielded numerous questions. Mahoney, who has been cooking lobsters for more than 40 years, said his restaurant features the delicacy many ways, but the special is pan-roasted.
He walked the crowd through the best way to grill, as well how to tell if it is done – peel the tail back and if it snaps, you’re good.
Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, took the audience on “biology breaks,” offering fun facts about the popular shellfish.
“They can regenerate claws, legs, even their eyes,” she said, adding they molt 20 to 25 times within the first five to seven years of life. They can also do lobster yoga – stand on their heads and flip their bottoms up if you stroke their tails.
Guests were able to try out Mahoney’s Phyllo cups with creamy leek and lobster, easy to make and quick to disappear.
“You guys can make these for your holiday party,” suggested Sanderson.