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U.S.-Canada Lobster Town Meeting returns to Portland

The U.S.–Canada Lobster Town Meeting returned to Portland, Maine on February 3 and 4 after a two year hiatus due to the Covid pandemic. Hosted by the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, the sold-out town meeting was held in Portland’s historic Mariner’s Church, recently purchased by the Portland Regency Hotel. The theme of this year’s meeting was he U.S. – Canadian lobster fishery and the North Atlantic right whale.

Lobster Institute executive director Rick Wahle. MLA photo.

The Town Meeting welcomed more than 200 people from eight states and five Canadian provinces, its largest attendance ever. Attendees included harvesters, researchers, fisheries managers, lobster dealers, processors, political delegates, gear manufacturers, and non-profit representatives.

Four sessions were held over two days on topics including fishery regulations to future technology and gear innovations. Each session featured a panel of Canadian and U.S. representatives who were asked to share their perspectives.

The first panel addressed the status of regulations and new US federal funding. Brett Gilcrest, Director of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Melanie Giffin, Marine Biologist and program planner for the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association provided Canada’s perspective, while Patrice McCarron, Executive Director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and Molly Ryan, a legislative assistant focused on environmental issues in Senator Collins’ office provided the U.S. perspective. A lively discussion among the panelists and meeting attendees covered protection measures taken by Canada and the U.S. fisheries to reduce whale entanglement risk, and as well as how the federal funds included in the 2022 Omnibus bill will be distributed in the U.S.

Lobster Council of Canada executive director Geoff Irvine, left, takes part in a panel discussion with Ready Seafood biologist Curt Brown. MLA photo.

Another panel discussed market impacts of the lobster-whale controversy. Panel members included Marianne LaCroix, Executive Director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative; Curt Brown, marine biologist at Ready Seafood; Christina Ferranti-Clift, Director of Marketing at East Coast Seafood Group; Geoff Irvine, Executive Director of The Lobster Council of Canada; Owen Kenney, Vice President of Sales at Downeast Specialty Products; and Adam Morris, General Manager of the lobster division at Clearwater Seafoods.

Panelists discussed Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of both the U.S. and Canadian lobster fisheries and the current status of the Maine fishery with regard to federal law following the recent action by the U.S. Congress. They also highlighted the importance of the level of lobster inventory on boat price and concern about cold storage space, particularly in New England, into the spring.

MLA staff member Mindy Coath, right, chats with Darlene Norman-Brown of Fundy North Fishermen’s Association. MLA photo.

Processors said that they had to reduce production in 2022 to adjust for market conditions, but that the market is in much better shape now. On the international stage, high tariffs on U.S. lobster have made it difficult for the U.S. to export to China, especially when compared to Canadian lobster.

The discussion then turned to promotions intended to counter the negative impact of lobster now being on Seafood Watch’s red list and whether it was important to differentiate between lobstering regions (Massachusetts, Maine, or Canada). Panelists stated that from a marketing perspective they view lobster from both Canada and the U.S. as a single industry and see no reason to differentiate between region of origin when promoting products overseas.

A third session looked at shifting distributions of species in a changing climate. Panelists included Nick Record, Senior Research Scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences; Andrew Goode, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Maine, School of Marine Sciences; Moira Brown, Senior Scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute; and Lydia White, PhD Candidate at the University of New Brunswick.

The conversation covered the impact of warming waters on the primary prey of right whales (copepods) and the resulting changes in right whale distribution. Researchers are using data on oceanographic indicators, in particular change in the relative influence of the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current and the abundance of Calanus finmarchicus, to develop better models for predicting new right whale habitats. Warmer waters also seem to be exceeding the ideal conditions for lobster in the southern part of its range with more favorable conditions in the north, leading to a net northward shift in abundance, with noteworthy increases in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

On the second day of the meeting, a session focused on future technology and gear innovations for the industry. Panelists were Kristan Porter, President of Maine Lobstermen’s Association; Noah Oppenheim of Homarus Strategies LLC; Jeremy Willey, lobsterman and CEO of Maine Fish Tech; Luc LeBlanc, a fisheries adviser for the Maritime Fishermen’s Union; Kenneth LeClair, Vice President of the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association; and Bernie Berry, President of the Coldwater Lobster Association.

The panelists discussed testing new gear types and expressed concern over the prohibitive pricing of certain proposed whale safe gears such as acoustic ropeless fishing. Conversation turned to safety considerations surrounding new ropes and weak links, as well as differences between Canadian and U.S. management efforts. The session concluded with a discussion on the current gear testing efforts taking place on both sides of the border.

The meeting successfully achieved its goal of fostering communication between stakeholders in both the U.S. and Canada on the present and future of the lobster industry. Next year, the U.S. Canada Town Meeting will take place in Canada, following the tradition of alternating meeting locations between the two countries.

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