Maine lobster, the best lobster roll ever, and reflections on a whale of a problem
Growing up in Vermont, I’ve vacationed on the Maine sea coast more times than I can count. It's what Vermonters do in the summer. We pile into our cars with sunblock and beach towels and drive east across New Hampshire and up the Maine seaboard which thanks to its many inlets and bays, has a longer coastline than California. This fact helps explain why the drive is always so much longer than I remember. US Route 1 crawls along the coastline from one quaint seaside town to another.
Since 1936, the Maine license plate has proudly declared itself “vacationland”. As a Vermonter, I’ve always known why, from the rocky wild coastlines to the sandy beaches to the delicious seafood. Maine is a beach vacation miracle that appears each summer where it seems like it shouldn’t be in the far north. My Maine summer excursions have always been full of sand and sea and plenty of clam chowder, fried clams, and of course, lots and lots of lobster.
Lobster is synonymous with the Maine coast. You can still buy a fresh lobster directly from the lobstermen at the pound and eat the sweet pink meat on a working wharf surrounded by lobster cages and buoys and the salty smell of the ocean. The classic version of the Maine vacationland license plate boasts a big red lobster in the center.
I’ve eaten my weight in lobster rolls too, that classic New England seafood sandwich served on a buttered hot dog roll with melted butter or mayo and sometimes a little celery salt. And you can almost eat that much in one sitting at Red’s Eats lobster shack. It’s the best lobster roll out there. They put so much meat in each roll that it’s like eating a whole lobster without the hassle of getting it out of its shell.
Red’s Eats is a family-run business in a tiny shack on the side of a busy road. Trailer trucks often idle at the traffic light out front and the summertime traffic is back to back. A long and constant line of customers folds around the back of the shack, and takes its time. There is no shade and the Maine summer sun can be formidable. Staff hand out umbrellas and water, and there is an ice bath for dogs. And yet, I’ve gladly stood coated in sunblock on the scalding hot pavement amid the roar of trucks for one or even two hours for the chance to eat a Red’s Eats lobster roll. I’ve done it many times and I will gladly do it many more.
The lobster is served undressed with a side of melted butter, although they’ll give you mayonnaise if you ask. There is so much lobster meat on a single roll that you can misplace the bun. It’s hard to imagine how many lobsters they must serve each summer. We once tried to game the line by arriving an hour before they opened, but there was already a small crowd and it still took us almost two hours to secure our rolls.
Most American lobster comes from Maine, and from the nearby Canadian coast. The crustacean thrives in the cold rocky waters of the Atlantic where it can hide from predators. Lobstering makes up 79% of the fishing industry in Maine.
Recognizing the importance of lobster to its local economy, Maine has regulated the industry since the early 1870s when the state banned lobstermen from keeping egg-bearing females. In the 1930s, they went even further, forbidding lobstermen from keeping both small and large lobsters, protecting the children and the breeders. And it worked, year after year, Maine lobstermen set catch records, and lobster levels allegedly remain sustainable.
Yet a sustainable catch is not enough. News outlets, including the New York Times, reported in mid-September that Seafood Watch has added the American lobster to its list of seafood to avoid. Seafood Watch is a sustainable advisory list produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that uses science to guide businesses, chefs, and consumers to make better choices when purchasing seafood.
While the American lobster is allegedly caught at sustainable levels with minimal impact on its habitat and environment, Seafood Watch explains that lobster fishing is jeopardizing the survival of the North American Right Whale which is a critically endangered species.
Sadly, the Right Whale got its name because hunters once considered it the right whale to kill as it moves slowly and floats when it is dead. Overhunting nearly wiped the species out and its been protected since 1972. But its numbers are still in decline and there are fewer than 350 Right Whales left. If nothing is done, some scientists say they could be extinct in as little as 20 years.
While the Right Whale is often killed or injured in collisions with boats, the primary threat to the species according to Seafood Watch is entanglement in lobster fishing gear. Lobster is caught with traps called pots that rest on the ocean floor. The pots are connected to buoys at the surface of the water with a line of vertical rope in which the whales can become entangled.
Scientists say that Snow Cone, a 17-year-old Right Whale that was recently spotted south of Nantucket, will not survive her most recent entanglement. She also lost a calf in a boating accident. And 17 is young. Right Whales can live for up to 80 years. As a critically endangered species, the loss of a breeding female at such a young age is catastrophic.
By adding lobster to its red list, Seafood Watch wants to put pressure on lawmakers and fishery managers to stop using the vertical lines.
Yet the Maine Lobstermen’s Association asserts that no Right Whales have been entangled in Maine waters in almost two decades and that Maine lobster gear has never led to the death of a Right Whale. The Association further claims to have actively removed miles of line since the late 1990s and weakened existing lines and that it continues to develop innovative gear solutions to protect the whales while preserving the lobstering industry.
Even experts contend that the lines found on entangled whales have been of an unknown origin and are not the same gauge as the lines used in Maine. Therefore, it’s not clear that eliminating the Maine lobster industry would save the Right Whale. We could just lose both.
According to the Economist, lobstering is a 1 billion dollar industry in Maine employing over 12,000 people directly, not including the restaurants, hotels, and other tourist amenities that all benefit. What would Maine be without lobster?
I do not eat American lobster often. It is expensive and not accessible in Europe where I spend much of my time. Giving it up would be easy but without funds, how can the Maine lobster industry continue to try to find a better way?
A friend recently proposed place-based lobster designations similar to the Italian-controlled designation of origin. She may have a point. Until then, I’m still eating lobster but I’ll save it for guaranteed Maine lobster in New England, and for long, meandering summer drives up the Maine coast. I also hope that with more attention and investment, we can do what is right for the Right Whale.