PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine lobster industry has long been held up as a well-run fishery. Now it's seeking a seal of approval to prove it.
Efforts are under way to have the state's signature seafood certified as sustainable by an international organization that evaluates fishing practices. With consumers demanding more "green" food products, the lobster industry stands to lose out if it doesn't get certified, supporters say.
"It'll open up a lot of markets for us," said John Hathaway, owner of Shucks Maine Lobster processing company in Richmond. "If we don't do it, we'll probably lose markets."
The London-based Marine Stewardship Council has been in the business of encouraging responsible fishing practices since 1997. Fisheries that are certified as "sustainable" can use the council's blue ecolabel, a seal that assures consumers that the seafood was not overfished or harvested in a way that harms the ocean.
The MSC has now certified 26 separate fisheries around the world, and nearly 1,200 seafood products carry the group's label.
A growing number of retailers and restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon.
Wal-Mart has pledged that, in the next few years, all wild-caught seafood it sells in its North American stores will be certified as sustainable. Other U.S. chains, including Whole Foods, Target and Costco, have committed to the program in varying degrees.
It's hard to ignore heavy-hitters like those, said Linda Bean, owner of Port Clyde Lobster. "We're convinced that the demand for Maine lobster will be greatly affected if we don't do this," she said. "We'll be out of the loop."
Maine is the nation's lobster breadbasket, accounting for about 80 percent of the 90-million or so pounds of American lobsters — the type with big claws and tails — caught each year in waters off the Northeast. American lobster was the single most valuable U.S. fishery in 2006, worth $395-million, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Gov. John Baldacci has appointed a task force to pursue the MSC certification for Maine lobsters.
Maine's lobster fishery, which was valued at about $250-million last year, is often cited as a model fishery. There are trap limits and rules that ban catching lobsters that are too small and too big, along with egg-bearing females.
Having an ecolabel certification would allow the industry to promote those harvest practices.