Consider the crustaceans, arthropods that feature a hard exoskeleton composed of the carbohydrate chitin and calcium carbonate but have no internal skeleton. While there are nearly 68,000 known species of crustaceans, as per ecologists and co-authors Alan Covich, PhD, James Thorp, PhD, and D. Christopher Rogers, PhD, the ones most popular as human consumables are decapods—specifically lobsters, crabs, shrimps, prawns, and crayfish.
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Explore This IssueFebruary/March 2020
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In 2017, the highest landed value U.S. commercial seafood categories were salmon ($688 million), crabs ($610 million), lobsters ($594 million), and shrimp ($531 million), according to recently available data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Blue crab is the largest crab fishery by volume in the United States and is mainly harvested in coastal bays and estuaries along much of the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. In 2017, 147,725,136 pounds of blue crab were landed in the U.S., valued at $197,359,499; the landed value for Dungeness crab exceeded that of blue crab ($213,509,758 for 61,571,073 pounds), according to NOAA. Commercial value notwithstanding, shrimp has consistently been the No. 1 seafood consumed in the United States at 4.4 pounds per person in 2017, NOAA Fisheries reports.
There are three commercial lobster fisheries in the United States: American lobster, Homarus americanus, a clawed lobster; and two spiny species: the Caribbean lobster, Panulirus argus, and the California lobster, Panulirus interruptus, according to Richard Wahle, PhD, a professor in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine (UMaine), Orono, and director of UMaine’s Lobster Institute.
As a center of scholarship and outreach in UMaine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture, the Lobster Institute strives to foster collaboration and communication in support of a sustainable and profitable lobster industry in the Northeast U.S. and Canada, Dr. Wahle says. “Institute staff engage with lobster scientists, fishery managers, health regulators, and legislators to address industry priorities through collaborative research, educational workshops, and conferences,” he adds.
“The American lobster comprises the most valuable single-species fishery in the United States,” Dr. Wahle says. “Of all the various species of edible fish and aquatic invertebrates sold commercially in the U.S., the American lobster boasts the greatest total annual landed value.”
H. americanus is native to the northwest Atlantic coast from offshore North Carolina to the Canadian province of Labrador. “The species is especially abundant in the Gulf of Maine, the Scotian Shelf, and the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, encompassing from south to north the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, and the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec,” Dr Wahle says.
The Gulf of Maine produces 90 percent of the U.S. lobster harvest, with 80 percent coming from Maine alone, he notes. “Massachusetts ranks a distant second place in U.S. lobster harvest,” Dr. Wahle adds. “Additional states contributing minor amounts commercially include Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Very small amounts are harvested in North Carolina offshore deep water.”
In 2016, 120 million pounds of live American lobsters were harvested in the U.S., with a landed value of $530 million, Dr. Wahle reports, adding that the Maine lobster harvest peaked in 2016. “In October 2019, the Maine Department of Marine Resources reported that the 2019 Maine harvest was down by some 20 percent to 40 percent from the previous year, but harvesters have reported a strong fall run,” Dr. Wahle says. The total 2019 Maine lobster harvest is forthcoming.
New Research Underway
In 2019, the U.S. Congress appropriated $2 million in federal funds for lobster research administered by the NOAA Sea Grant Program. “The initiative supports seven new research projects in the Northeast and an expansion of the exiting Sea Grant extension program to include a lobster specialist,” Dr. Wahle says. “The research will address critical gaps in knowledge about American lobster responses to environmental change and how to provide opportunities to increase economic resilience and adaptation in the lobster fishery. The goal of this initiative is to shed light on how to preserve the H. americanus fishery. This is especially important because lobster quality depends in large part on species sustainability.”
Using his two-year $399,293 Sea Grant funding, Dr. Wahle will examine the disconnect between historic highs in lobster egg production in the Gulf of Maine and low numbers of young-of-year recruits showing up in coastal nurseries. “This project will help us test our hypothesis that, before larvae even settle to the seabed, their survival is limited by the supply of planktonic food in the pelagic food web,” he says. “To that end, we’re conducting field studies to examine the association between lobster larvae and zooplankton prey. And, in the lab, we’ll put new DNA sequencing tools to work in what amounts to a forensic investigation to identify prey that field-collected larvae have consumed. Studying lobster larval feeding ecology should help us better understand the links between changes in the Gulf of Maine’s ocean environment and change in its iconic lobster fishery, a key economic driver in our coastal communities.”
Another of the seven Sea Grant projects is led by Damian Brady, PhD, an ecosystem modeler in UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences. Dovetailing Dr. Wahle’s project, Dr. Brady is using his two-year $399,994 grant to further explore the potential effects of climate warming on the early life history of H. americanus. “His team is developing a modeling system to examine effects of three key moving targets: location and timing of spawning, larval transport, and the distribution of a thermally suitable nursery habitat,” Dr. Wahle says.
The latest research on lobsters is being used to educate fishers, food producers and consumers. Established in 2010, the Lobster Academy is an annual four-day program dedicated to increasing the value of H. americanus worldwide for all related stakeholders, including fishermen, buyers, and consumers, according to Robert Bayer, PhD, UMaine professor emeritus of animal and the veterinary sciences, as well as the Lobster Academy’s founder. Dr. Bayer is also Dr. Wahle’s predecessor as director of the Lobster Institute.
The Lobster Academy is held at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews-by-the Sea, New Brunswick. Academy tours and demonstrations are also conducted on nearby Deer Island, which is home to the world’s largest natural live lobster pound. (A pound is a commercial enclosure filled with circulating water in which lobsters are kept alive pending sale. Deer Island’s pound is considered natural because it is outdoors and fed by sea water tides.) The pound’s owner, Paturel International Company, a subsidiary of East Coast Seafood Group, packs and ships millions of pounds of live lobsters around the world annually, the firm reports.
“We focus on providing quality education and discovery for international and domestic lobster buyers, importers, culinary professionals, and other industry leaders,” Dr. Bayer says. “We provide hands-on training aboard a lobster boat and in a lobster processing plant.” To date, some 300 professionals associated with lobster have attended the academy, he notes. “The curriculum reflects industry issues including traceability, sustainability certification, demand, pricing, processing, regulatory issues, and marketing opportunities,” Dr. Bayer adds, emphasizing that the major issue affecting lobster quality is handling live lobsters in a way that minimizes mortality and shrinkage.
While lobsters are harvested in Maine year-round, fishing diminishes there during the winter, Dr. Bayer says. “But, in Canada, the most important hard-shell season runs from November to spring,” he adds. “Lobsters are more rugged and ship well during that time.”
Growth of Processed Lobster Products
The number of larger lobster processing facilities in Maine—those processing more than 100 crates of live lobsters, or approximately 10,000 pounds, per day—has increased over the past 10 years to eight, according to Jason Bolton, PhD, UMaine Cooperative Extension food safety specialist. Dr. Bolton works with food companies, including lobster processors, on facility design, good manufacturing practices, sanitation standard operating procedures, hazard analysis and critical control points implantation, thermal process validation, regulation interpretation, and new product development. He’s also an instructor at the Lobster Academy.
“While most lobsters caught in Maine are sold live, especially for the export market, domestic processors are creating value-added products for retail and food service with increasing regularity,” Dr. Bolton points out. “Lobster meat for lobster rolls, macaroni and cheese, and ravioli are examples of popular products in demand. And, for the companies in our state producing these products, food quality and safety are top priorities.”
Crustacean Quality Issues
Three issues will likely impact the availability of quality crustaceans in the years ahead—namely, water quality, reduced harvest pressure, and disease control, according to David Green, PhD, professor emeritus of food science at North Carolina State University (NCSU). Dr. Green is the founder and former director of the NCSU Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City, N.C.
“Selling large quantities of crustaceans consistently depends on having multiple sources of high-quality product, including sourcing from foreign countries,” he contends. “In addition, complying with Food Safety Modernization Act requirements, including traceability and country-of-origin labeling, is an ongoing challenge for crustacean purveyors. In the United States, crustacean processors and distributors must record hand-to-hand traceability—that is, who they buy from and who they sell to. But if a distributor co-mingles products from multiple suppliers, traceability can become more burdensome.”
High pressure processing is becoming more widely used for crustacean processing, Dr. Green says. “Not only does HPP inactivate pathogens and extend shelf life while maintaining the natural flavor, aroma, and nutritional characteristics of foods, the technique is especially useful for removing a lobster’s outer shell,” he says. Applying hydrostatic pressure at 43,500 to 87,000 pounds per square inch (psi) transmitted by cold water, HPP weakens the muscles that attach the shell to the meat, making lobster stripping easy, he adds. This is a real plus, because shells typically have to be removed by hand, making lobster processing a labor-intensive task.
“HPP facilitates recovery of basically 100 percent of the edible parts of the lobster,” adds Roberto Peregrina, Miami, Fla.-based USA director of Hiperbaric, a Spanish manufacturer of HPP systems. “That offers benefits for food service professionals as they develop new culinary creations.”