What’s Up With Maine Lobster?

In theory, climate change should be ravaging stocks, but catches are up. Why?

To mate, a female lobster urinates near where a desired male lives, drawing his attention. Because she molts her shell in order to procreate, he must convince her that he will protect her during the 30 minutes that her new, softer shell requires to harden. Using his gonopods, he’ll insert sperm packets into a receptive pouch under her tail, which she will use to fertilize her eggs over the course of a year.

Anthropogenic climate change may threaten this process. When the ocean is too warm during the winter, lobsters won’t produce sperm or eggs. Yet — for the time being, anyway — harvests are high, with 80 percent of 2016’s U.S. haul coming from Maine. That’s total yield of 131-million pounds, in the waters off one state. Demand for it is high: Lobster has since become a delicacy in China, where demand helped even out prices after a crash in 2012 when supplies were even higher.

Like soft-shell crab, seasonal “new-shell” lobsters are the most prized. On this coast, however, lobster retains a sort of musty quality. It’s not as though it’s ever anything but delicious. It’s that the presentation — from the bibs to the special carapace-cracker utensils to the crypto-absurdity of having a giant red sea spider on your dinner plate — feels trés yesteryear in a way that Dungeness crab does not. Even Leo’s Oyster Bar, a good barometer for the art of making the classics hip, uses lobster only in bisque and roll form. No tentacles allowed, in other words. But as an affordable luxury, it has enough of a cachet — to say nothing of the storied history of lobster fishing — that people who make their living off marine crustaceans adopted sustainable practices to keep the industry alive.

So, earlier this month at an event at Fillmore Street restaurant The Progress, SF Weekly asked Jason Joyce, an eighth-generation lobster fisherman from Swan’s Island, Maine, what’s happening.

“We had the coldest March on record for the state of Maine,” he said, adding that he talked to a friend who fishes in southern Maine, where, in June, “the water was 10 degrees colder than last year. The cold really slowed things down.”

Perversely, the collapse in groundfish stocks like cod has freed lobsters from one of their two main predators. (The other is seals, which remain plentiful.) But adjustments to fishing practices have given some lobsters a get-out-of-jail-free card, based on their size.

“We have vents [in the traps] which allow small lobsters out,” Joyce says. “It’s about seven years to get to a legal-size lobster, so up until that that time, they’ve been getting free meat.”

In spite of reports of enormous lobsters getting caught, the bigger ones are usually left alone. It’s not because they follow a lamb-and-mutton pattern where the younger ones’ meat is tastier, but because larger, more mature females produce better eggs.

And however profitable the industry might be in a given year, Joyce emphasizes that his boat, the Andanamra — a mash-up of his four kids’ names — remains a small enterprise.

“We’re all pretty much day-boats,” he says. “We’re all boats that are less than 50 feet long. Your average boat is probably 38 to 42 feet. There’s no corporate boats. We’re just like the restaurant business: You may expand into two or three locations, but it’s all small businesses.”

And if you’re hungry for tails and claws and you have a big group, The Progress serves a chilled whole Maine lobster salad on the half shell for $52.

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