The fast food conundrum: Can Maine lobster be too abundant?

Dexter Stephens, 7, inspects his lobster during the 68th annual Lobster Festival in Rockland in late July. (BDN photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Dexter Stephens, 7, inspects his lobster during the 68th annual Lobster Festival in Rockland in late July. (BDN photo by Ashley L. Conti)

An article in The New Yorker this month explores what it calls the “Unnatural history of the McLobster,” following the amazing lobster population boom in the Gulf of Maine and how the abundance of the catch is helping the once exclusive seafood show up on the menus of all sorts of chain restaurants and fast food joints.

One excerpt reads:

“The root cause of lobster’s slow migration from the white tablecloth to the drive-thru is that it simply isn’t the scarce commodity that it once was. Today’s lobster, [UMaine marine ecologist Robert] Steneck said, is the product of a ‘brave new ocean,’ in which wild-caught-lobster fisheries increasingly resemble farming.”

The lobster population is exploding for a variety of reasons, The New Yorker’s J.B. MacKinnon writes, including: Warming coastal waters; overfishing of natural lobster predators, like cod; and the use of traps that provide bait for lobsters to eat, but aren’t terribly efficient at catching them.

(MacKinnon writes that more than 90 percent of lobsters who visit a trap manage to get at the food without getting stuck, creating a system by which lobstermen are effectively feeding the fishery — so the relationship is more like farmers tending livestock than hunters corralling wild prey.)

“In 1990, lobster landings in the Gulf of Maine — the heart of U.S. lobstering — broke a record that had stood since 1889. Since then, new highs have been set fourteen more times; annual hauls are now quadruple the 1990 record,” he wrote. “The population density of Gulf of Maine lobsters is now one to two per square meter, though Steneck has more than once dropped a square-meter frame onto the seafloor and caught six lobsters.”

MacKinnon’s sources posit that the current, wild success of the lobster fishery — creating enough inventory for massive-scale/low-cost distributors like McDonald’s to capitalize on — could have some downsides.

Some marine scientists told The New Yorker overpopulation can create an environment where a disease is more likely to spread, although they admitted that there are relatively few pathogens on the record that bother lobsters.

The relative reduction in marine diversity in the Gulf of Maine, making the famous lobster a bigger and bigger part — now as much as 80 percent — of the overall state fishery, also gave industry watchers pause. If anything were to happen to the lobster population, it would be catastrophic, because now such a disproportionate part of the economy relies on the seafood.

But while the diversity of Maine fishing is decreasing, the diversity of lobster retailers is increasing, and that can have serious upsides.

Steneck told The New Yorker having lobster rolls available at Subway, Quiznos and everywhere else made the seafood “more resilient to [the] price shifts” that used to cause havoc with lobstermen’s take-home pay, even if it makes the delicacy less exclusive.

Maine’s lobster fishery has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, and the meat of the crustaceans remains healthier than the popular beef options it shares fast food menus with. In those ways, Steneck suggested to MacKibbon, you’d be doing your body and the planet a favor by picking the lobster options when you’re shopping at chains.

“If you have to go to McDonald’s, it’s probably a good choice,” Steneck told him.