Monday, October 5, 2015

Maine New Shell Lobster Tour

I received an invitation for a Maine lobster tour. How could I say no? Gratefully, we were blessed with pristine weather the whole time.

herring, which serve as bait in lobster traps

magic hour lobster boat experience

new arrivals at the Clam Shack, these lobsters will be cooked for lobster rolls and whole lobster meals

fried clams, scallops, and haddock on the back deck at the Clam Shack

their unique lobster rolls include claw, knuckle, and tail meat, and a smear of both mayo and butter

tasting at Oxbow brewery - a delicious and pastoral experience
Oxbow brewery beehives
A couple weeks ago, I was invited by Lobster from Maine to get better acquainted with Maine's lobster industry. I had no clue about a lot of things, including what distinguishes "new shell" lobster from just lobster.

This trip was highly educational. I left with new understandings about the treat that "new shell" lobster specifically is, and the rigorous measures implemented to ensure the lobster population remains healthy and prolific.

Lobsters outgrow their shells mid- to late-summer, shedding them for new ones. These new shells are much softer as they re-calcify, and lobster meat during this time is sweeter and more tender. Bonus, you won't need as many tools to properly enjoy a delicious lobster meal.  One way to identify new shells: they are redder in hue than hard shell lobsters, which are a deeper brown, with flesh that is more briny.

I was part of a guided tour of the MSC certified processing facility which handles lobster for all of the Luke's Lobster locations. Here we saw the machinery, as well as the man - and woman! - power required to dispatch, shuck, and process 35,000 pounds of lobster per day.

The rate at which the people work, shucking knuckles and claw meat in front of various bins lined up on long steel tables, in a (very!) chilled room, was astounding. Their speed and deftness was the work of millions of minutes fine-tuning this highly specific process. Which makes sense since they are paid by the volume they deliver each day.

The sprawling machinery throughout the plant was equally amazing. Some machines instantaneously froze uncooked lobster to ship, some which cooked the lobster, timed at graduated temperatures to retain maximum flavor and tenderness. Even the sanitary measures taken to keep quality standards at their best were rigorous…. We went through four rounds of gloves/booties/hairnets/hand sanitizing/etc just to enter! It really was an incredible experience. Thanks Mike, for your hospitality and thoroughness.

From there, we were shuttled to the famous Clam Shack for their unique take on lobster rolls and tasty local beer, as well as a selection of their house specialty, the crunchy-juicy fried scallops, clams, and haddock.

Stools at the Clam Shack, painted the buoy colors of their prized lobstermen

Steve educating the group on what he looks for in fresh lobster

Did you know the length of a lobster's antennae reveal how fresh a lobster is? Lobster don't like each other (one reason why their claws are banded once captured) and will clip or chew each others' antennae once in captivity. The longer a lobster has been in a holding tank, the less likely they will have their full antennae, which should be almost as long as their bodies.

And, did you know that lobsters are left- or right-handed, and their dominant claw is the larger one? This is also referred to as the "crusher" claw, while their non dominant claw is the "pincher" or "shredder." Being pinched by the crusher claw can feel like having your finger broken, delivering up to 100 lbs of pressure. Yikes.

Boiling or steaming lobster in seawater is considered the best cooking method
I loved this stone-filled pail, which served as the counterweight to the trap-door style steamer lid

our crew knows how to feast...
We could have lazed about all afternoon after this meal, but our drivers had a lobster boat outing next on the list

filling the bait bags

flocks of seagulls kept us company, diving for leftover bait tossed overboard 

Kelly Rizzo of Eat Travel Rock hamming it up
author Rowan Jacobsen striking a pose

Here's the scoop on sustainability: all Maine lobstermen use this tool to measure the lobster carapace. Any lobster smaller or larger than 3.25-5 inches gets released to continue populating. That's more than two-thirds of the lobsters brought from the traps on our brief ride out. In addition, any "berried" females trapped - those bearing eggs - get a notch made in their tail to denote "not to be caught" and are also released.

How can you tell the difference between male and female lobsters? In the below photo, the more delicate swimmerets (mid-body and down) on the right lobster denote female. This is also the region where females store their eggs. See photo following….

On the next day our crew of chefs, authors, bloggers, and journalists took a drive to the pastoral oasis that is Oxbow Brewery.

the resident cat, who by all accounts made everyone fall in love with him as he enthusiastically rolled around….

the brewery gardens include many berry varietals, which they often incorporate into their ferments

the honey harvest is also incorporated into some of the beers

the practice at Oxbow is to do it well, which often means slow

we sampled a smoky and terrific barrel-aged oktoberfest

brewer Mike Fava obliging sustainable fish advocate Michael-Anne Rowe for the camera

an al fresco lunch and beer included many tastes - even their special Dell'Aragosta, a beer made using lobster (it was amazing!)

at brief stop at a lobster dealer on the harbor, I captured the load-in of bait

we went for a private tour of the Maine State aquarium and witnessed some extremely unusual lobsters - this split color lobster is extremely rare, they say one in 50 million

this lobster has just molted - its shell was just a thin membrane
albino lobsters are the most rare of all - one in every 100 million!

cobalt lobsters are gorgeous, a one in a million occurrence and the result of proliferation of a special protein…this one was just brought in by a lobsterman and will now be part of the educational program at the aquarium

Our last stop was a lobster-chef food competition - 19 different creations for everyone to judge

The Boothbay Harbor Claw Down has sold out every year 

I came, I ate, and I was wowed. One thing I couldn't help but wonder was how climate change is affecting this industry. They, like many industries, communities, and ecosystems, are no doubt being impacted. It is a very tricky subject to navigate with enough merchants of doubt planting non-truths throughout media to complicate the discussion, and no easy answers.

I did learn that during some recent seasons, lobstermen have to travel into deeper waters to find the same volume of lobsters as in previous years. Time will tell if their sustainability practices are enough to maintain healthy stocks - of lobsters, and of the fish on which lobsters sustain themselves.

Forage fish such as herring which commonly serve as bait to trap lobsters are often fished by means of trawling. This disruptive practice essentially rakes the ocean floor and destroys much life along the way. It isn't the only practice, but trawling inflicts exponential damage to an increasingly fragile marine ecosystem, and will have to change in order to keep the health of the ocean intact.

Right now, the ocean is currently overfished 25-35% worldwide and we are experiencing vanishing fish populations in large areas off many shores. This human-caused impact adds another layer to the climate change issue already in play. How can the Maine lobster industry keep its sustainable edge as other ocean populations face strain?

Since it is all one ecosystem, it appears we must address the ocean as a whole. Not easy, I know, and it certainly doesn't help matters that industry standards vary so widely from one fishery to the next. This is an essential consideration as we continue to consume, given that we want to make informed choices.

I hope Maine lobster thrives and that their diligent practices are used as a model for the greater fishing industry, so that our oceans can return to a healthier place.  It will take public pressure in order to do that.

to slow down before the return back home, I took a day out on the coast and soaked in nature 

low tide wandering the rocks

still perfect weather

I hope this collection inspires you as much as it did me. 

Travel. See Maine. Sample delicious new shell lobster and see for yourself. Bring your best self and take it all in…

And then when you return home do something. It will take all of us.