Thursday, March 24, 2011

All About Lobster

(This post written by Slow Food Tufts member Bridget McElroy)

Lobster was the topic and the guest of honor at the March 17th Slow Food Tufts meeting. Jim Lynch took time out of his busy schedule at the Lynch Lobster Company in Beverly, MA, to speak to the group about the different aspects of the lobster business including catching, sourcing, marketing, shipping, sustainability issues, and some tasty recipes. With him, he brought two live lobsters to teach us about the legal lobster size and to give us a little lobster anatomy lesson.

Jim and his two brothers represent the third generation of their family to work in the lobster business, as their grandfather started his own company in the industry in 1925. In 1994, the three brothers branched out to start their own small, hands-on, local live lobster distribution business with a national and international scope. According to Jim, the lobster industry produces 200-225 million pounds per year and does about a billion dollars worth of business annually. In general, the industry is divided up into small companies like Lynch’s, which do about $1-5 million in sales annually. Many of these companies are primarily involved in buying from lobstermen along the coast in New England and Canada and then distributing the product to various points along the supply chain. Lynch Lobster Company sells directly to consumers, restaurants, retailers, processors, or larger distributors, and can process between 5 and 10 thousand lobsters per day.

Although not one himself, Lynch personally knows many lobstermen (the only contracts his company has with lobster fishermen are based on a handshake) and he is very familiar with the political and environmental factors that affect them. We learned that in recent years, catch numbers have gone up significantly, partially because of regulations that have increased the stock. Policies have continued to raise the minimum size of lobsters that can be caught (meaning more lobsters are thrown back and allowed to keep growing and breeding) and they also require larger escape vents on traps (releasing lobsters from any traps lost by fishermen). Another very important factor that Jim pointed out is the reduced number of cod and haddock due to over-fishing. These fish are a lobster’s natural predators, and lobster populations have thrived since fish numbers in certain areas have dwindled.

Despite increased catch numbers, lobstermen in New England continue to face price fluctuations that sometimes pay them an unsustainable wage, especially during the off season (November-May). Additionally, in most cases, lobstermen don’t have much choice about where and when to sell their catch, and just sell to local middlemen at that day’s market price. Regulations in New England that limit the processing of whole lobsters are unfavorable to those who might want to start a value-added enterprise of their own – especially as value-added products like lobster tails and lobster meat have grown in popularity in recent years. Competition with Canada’s government-subsidized lobster processing industry is also a formidable challenge.

Jim Lynch’s many years of experience in the lobster business made him quite an enlightening guest to have. His enthusiasm for his family business, the industry, cooking, and lobsters in general made it a thoroughly enjoyable talk. At the end of his presentation, we all got to put our names in a hat for the chance to bring home two Lynch lobsters. Maggie Holmes (pictured left with the catch) was the lucky winner and I’m sure she prepared a delicious dinner that night.

Thank you to Jim Lynch and the Lynch Lobster Company, and to the Slow Food Tufts officers for organizing this fun talk!

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