LOBSTER CERTIFICATION, STEP-BY-STEP
It’s party night! Spring is finally here and you’re preparing a feast of this magnificent crustacean. You’re just about to buy it when you notice a round tag attached to one of its claws. Without realising it, you’re about to experience traceability.
Before eating your lobster, you take a closer look at the round tag. You recognise the Aliments du Québec logo and then see the words, Gaspésie, origine garantie, a web address monhomard.ca1 and an alphanumerical code. Following the instructions on the website, you take a virtual trip to the Gaspé and get to know the harvester who caught your supper in one of his or her traps.
WHERE’S MY LOBSTER FROM?
Homarus americanus is one of the largest marine crustaceans. Its range stretches from Newfoundland and Labrador to North Carolina. The Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gulf of Maine populations are particularly abundant. The 163 lobster harvesting crews based on the Gaspé Peninsula and Anticosti Island land nearly one third of all Québec lobster.
All along the coast, they each in their own way boast of the quality of their fishing grounds and how the water temperature and nature of the seabed there improve the flavour of the lobster they catch. Promotional campaigns focus on its excellence and, increasingly, on the responsible and sustainable management of populations. This invertebrate, considered a nuisance and treated as such when caught by accident in the past, has become an iconic Canadian species2, exported to 50 countries around the world.
The lobster earns income for thousands of skipperowners and their crew members as well as for buyers, wholesalers, distributors and merchants. And tempers rise from time to time when the discussion turns to the prices paid to harvesters. The definition of a “fair price” differs depending on whether you’ve actually taken the lobster from the water or are at some point along the distribution chain.
“We’ve always asked MAPAQ3 to do two things: first, protect the Québec market from lobster arriving from elsewhere along the Atlantic seaboard and second, set a minimum price,” explains O’Neil Cloutier, Regroupement des pêcheurs professionnels du sud de la Gaspésie president “but interprovincial trade rules and the difficulty establishing an agreement complicate things.” So to make Québec lobster distinct at the grocery store, an identification system was introduced. It also allows consumers to easily trace their lobster and find out where it came from. The lobster harvesters on the Magdalen Islands also manage a certified origin program, an approach that’s gradually being adopted throughout Atlantic Canada.
A FIRST IDENTIFICATION ATTEMPT
It was 1992. The fishing industry was in crisis; prices had collapsed. Searching for solutions, a decision was made to identify the origin of Québec crustaceans. That year’s lobster, with fleur-de-lys blue elastic bands on their claws, took consumers by surprise at the beginning of the season. But in no time, the reaction became positive. The effort was so successful, in fact, that lobster from other origins bearing counterfeit elastic bands began to appear on the market the following season. The idea of building alliances with consumers was already on the horizon. But prices recovered, the crisis dissipated and the project was abandoned, and in the end, the adventure didn’t last very long.
In 2008-2009 the industry faced another crisis. Much worse than the last one, according to O’Neil Cloutier. The market was flooded with small lobster just as Québec adopted stock management measures establishing commercial size standards. From that time on Gaspé Peninsula harvesters would only market lobster with a carapace size of between 82 mm and 145 mm, the idea being to protect both the youngest individuals and the largest broodstock. On the whole, the fishery was doing well and landings had increased over the years to the point where the overall supply largely exceeded domestic demand. Prices fell even as
boat operating costs continued to increase. “Over time and facing pressure from anonymous brands, we lost our market and our reputation,” observes Jean Côté, the Regroupement’s biologist. “We had to regain our position.”
“In 2012, we became proactive by installing electronic logbooks on all our lobster fishing boats. The harvesters used them to record their catch data every day, including their by-catch.” This was one of the steps taken to obtain recognition for the group’s sustainable fishing practices. Then, the work began to obtain certification guaranteeing the lobster’s origin. As consumers became increasingly focussed on buying locally, the idea came up again to appeal to them and help them recognise the origin of the lobster they were eating. Many would even be willing to pay a little more for a quality feast as long as they could trust the information they were given. A decision was made to use the Internet and social media. It was time for Lobster 2.0.
THOUSANDS OF CLICKS AND FACEBOOK LIKES LATER
It’s said that crises spur the imagination and creativity. Focusing on quality pays off just about everywhere, why not in the Gaspé?
In 2012, 30 percent of the lobster caught in the region was identified. One of the two elastic bands holding the claws carried a numbered tag. Consumers could enter the number at a dedicated website, monhomard.ca, which would connect them to the harvesters and their boats. On the website, they could watch video clips recorded while the harvesters were at work on the water, find the name and registration number of each lobster boat, its home harbour, the name of its skipper-owner and his or her e-mail address. In the case of lobster harvested by the Mi’gmaq Nation, the alphanumerical code referred visitors to the band councils.
At the same time, the Regroupement continued its reflection on the issue of sustainable development. The idea was to obtain MSC4 certification, an international standard that guarantees that all catch-related steps are rigorous, sustainable and validated by scientific experts.
The harvesters gradually joined the origin identification program until in 2013, all Gaspesian lobster wore tags. When the harvesters first set out to sea this year, they each had their allotted tags for the season, based on their 2014 catches.
And in March 2015, the Regroupement obtained its MSC certification; “a splendid achievement,” according to Jean Côté. However, some improvement is still required. Because certification is only renewed if the organisation continues to implement improvements in its practices, its priority now is to work to reduce repercussions on Atlantic mackerel in the Gulf. This species is used to bait traps.
IMPACT ON PRICES?
This operation has been successful in a number of ways; notably it has shown that people are willing to pay more for Québec lobster. “We know our efforts produce results; the average price we get is higher than that for lobster from other regions, and people ask for our lobster,” adds Côté. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure harvesters feel they’re being treated equitably and getting what they consider their fair share of the added value.
One thing is certain; that many clicks, words of affection and buying choices do not lie. Consumers increasingly want to know more about the origins of what they’re putting on the table, and concerns about species protection and the sound harvest of stocks appear to be here for good.
As for the lobster harvesters, they need to continue to become familiar with these new tasks as they go on with everything else they already have to do during the short fishing season. And their representatives say they’re determined to continue their efforts to promote certified origin lobster at fish stores and major grocery stores; they’re confident that more consumers will get on board. And why not? Social media now offers so many other ways to forge new friendships.
2. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/sustainabledurable/fisheries-peches/lobster-homard-eng.htm)
4. Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org).