Lobster industry claims of weaker shells unclear | Shanghai Daily

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May 17, 2018

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Lobster industry claims of weaker shells unclear

More people outside the US are enjoying the New England tradition of cracking open a freshly cooked American lobster, and that experience hinges on one thing — the lobster getting there alive.

That’s a looming problem, according to some members of the American lobster industry, who are concerned that lobsters’ shells are getting weaker. Scientific evidence about the issue paints a complicated picture.

US lobster exports to Asian countries have increased exponentially this decade, and American shippers prefer lobsters with hard, sturdy shells to survive the long journey to places such as Beijing and Seoul. But some members of US industry have complained in recent years of poor shell quality among lobsters, most of which are plucked from the ocean off Canada and New England.

They’ve raised concerns about warming ocean waters or acidification of the ocean having a negative effect on lobster shells. Scientists said there is a correlation between warm temperatures and increased shell disease, but incidences of the disease is very low off Maine, the nation’s top lobster-producing state. Lobstermen also are catching lots of lobsters in the summer, when the creatures molt and are softer. Otherwise, there isn’t much hard evidence to suggest lobster shells are weakening, scientists said.

There’s a lot of money at stake in getting lobsters to their destinations alive. American lobsters were worth a record US$669.3 million at the docks in 2016, a year in which fishermen caught nearly 160 million pounds (72.6 million kilograms) of the crustaceans. While lobster meat is used in some processed products, such as lobster macaroni and cheese and lobster bisque, the whole live lobster is one of the biggest draws in the seafood world. It’s also the sought-after item in the booming Chinese market, which took a record of nearly 18 million pounds of US lobster last year. A lobster with a harder, sturdier shell has a better chance to live through the one-to-two-day-long journey.

Bill Bruns, operations manager for The Lobster Company of Arundel, Maine, said “finding and producing enough product that’s possible to ship” has become a problem.

Rick Wahle, a University of Maine zoologist who studies lobsters, said he hasn’t “heard anything that lobsters are necessarily getting softer.” But he and many other scientists said lobsters do face environmental challenges that could impact their ability to be shipped.

Wahle and others said the jury is still out on whether the increasing acidification of the ocean is one of those factors. There appear to be subtle effects on lobster larvae from acidification, but nothing to suggest something as dramatic as weaker shells, he said.

It’s possible that processors are just seeing more “soft shell” lobsters that have recently molted, which is a natural process necessary for them to grow, Wahle said.

A 2017 study that appeared in the scientific journal FACETS looked at the subject of the health of soft-shelled lobsters in southwestern Nova Scotia.

It concluded that future research is needed “to evaluate the effects of long-term ecosystem change on shell-quality.”




 

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