From local produce to local lobsters

Quality in the Commonwealth

by Jennifer Bender Ferré

Quality in the Commonwealth

Elizabeth Cecil

Look for the Massachusett's Lobsterman's Association 'Whale Safe' rubber bands on state-caught lobsters, signifying best practices.  

It’s a a big concept…looking out over the water at the waves from your beach towel, Frisbee, paperback summer reads and with those lobster rolls stashed in your cooler for a beach picnic. It’s hard to grasp the idea that a robust ocean, this vast ecosystem, is inextricably linked to our food, our health, and the health of the planet. Every day we can make seafood choices that will positively affect or negatively affect this interconnectedness. And now, in Massachusetts there is a program that begins the discussion on sustainable fisheries and best management practices in the field.

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), headed up by Commissioner Scott Soares, recently launched the Commonwealth Quality Program(CQP). Started this year, CQP will serve to identify locally sourced foods that are grown, harvested, and processed right here in Massachusetts. It is a program with stringent guidelines, which uses safe practices to promote sustainability and reduce impacts to the environment. Michael Botelho, Commonwealth Quality Program Coordinator, considers the framework structured around the two goals of environmental sustainability and food safety, both based on best management practices. Farmers and niche food processors that are participating in the Commonwealth Quality program already meet stringent federal, state, and local regulatory requirements, but there are additional requirements. A Massachusetts Lobstermen who is participating in the CQP has to agree to go one step further and abide by the Massachusetts Lobster Best Management Practices (BMPs) Commonwealth Quality checklist.

For example, when considering harvesting activities the lobstermen must haul at a relatively slow rate of speed to allow the lobster to adjust to pressure differences and prevent gas bubbles from accumulating in the blood, as this can be damaging to the lobster. Another example would include equipment maintenance; the participant would have to check that trap buoys have proper breakaway equipment to prevent marine animal entanglement. It is this additional layer of best management practices that will ensure that consumers receive the safest, most wholesome products available. And it’s especially impressive when you consider that Massachusetts’s lobstermen are among the top three chief suppliers of the American Lobster (Homarus americanus) to the world market. The majority of all lobster shipped internationally come through or are from this state. The QCP currently includes lumber, produce, cranberries, and lobsters, with more sectors to join in the future.

The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association is working to be the first fishery in Massachusetts to have a CQP label. This partnership is an opportunity to create a branding of sorts for lobsters that are caught in Massachusetts’s waters and caught following the criteria set forth by this program. Individual lobstermen must sign on to adhere to the best management practices outlined by the program, which includes how the lobsters are handled, harvested and transported.

This is the first time that an eater can purchase a lobster and know where the lobster was caught and who caught it. According to Dave Cassoni, Secretary/Treasurer of Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, and the Northeast Regional Ocean Observing System, “The CQP is an opportunity to give the public the confidence to know that locally harvested lobsters were harvested using the best management practices and that all their efforts are to maintain a sustainable resource. In other words there was a little extra care that went into harvesting that animal.”

The program goes hand in hand with another program that the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association participates in called Whale Safe. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the Ocean Conservancy, MIT Seagrant, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society have partnered to implement this program that works towards reducing the risk of mortality to large whales and marine mammals by replacing floating line with sinking line.

Over 900 Massachusetts lobstermen set over 300,000 traps per year statewide. Traps are connected to each other by lines and to the surface by a buoy line. In the past, lobstermen set traps that were connected to floating ground lines; the Whale Safe program implemented a policy to use sinking ground lines because sinking ground lines avoid any interaction with whales. Buoys are also equipped with a breakaway link in the event any marine mammal interacts with that line, thus eliminating the potential risk to the marine mammal. “The Massachusetts lobster industry was the only state to be 100% compliant with regulation,” according to Cassoni. When you see a green band on any lobster that you buy in Massachusetts, you can feel confident that it has been caught by a lobsterman participating in the Whale Safe program.

Just as people are beginning to ask more questions about where their seafood comes from, how it was caught, and if it as farmed or wild, you can now ask if your fishmonger or seafood counter at the grocer, has lobsters which fall under the Commonwealth Quality Program. That is the tail of a kite that we can all grab onto— the awakening of a conscience consumer. With the health of both the ocean’s resources and our health and welfare in mind, creating demand in the marketplace and better stewards in the water, we can work together to illustrate what a holistic approach to managing our ocean resources can do in this, our small corner of the ocean, in Massachusetts’s waters.