PORTLAND – The state’s top fisheries official rejected claims Tuesday by a controversial animal-rights group that a lobster processor in Maine has engaged in cruel mutilation of lobsters.
In a prepared statement, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher called the claims by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “nothing more than another disingenuous attempt to advance their agenda and negatively impact Maine’s most important coastal industry and the economy it supports.”
Keliher said he consulted with his department’s lead biologist and concluded that “what is shown in (a PETA) video is compliant with state and federal laws and regulations, including Maine’s animal-welfare statute.”
PETA released the video Tuesday and said it was shot this year at the Rockland processing plant of Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster. Bean is a granddaughter of the legendary Maine retailer L.L. Bean and a major player in the state’s lobster industry.
At a news conference Tuesday in Portland, Dan Paden, an evidence analysis manager with PETA, screened the four-minute video, which shows, among other things, live lobsters being ripped apart by hand.
The video, taken with a hidden camera by a PETA investigator who worked at the plant briefly, shows an unidentified worker grabbing a squirming lobster. He rips off the lobster’s claws, then drives the body against a sharp stake mounted to a machine, which separates the shell surrounding the head and body. The lobster twitches after its limbs are taken off.
The Portland Press Herald has not posted the video on its website because it could not independently verify where it was shot. The video is on PETA’s website.
Stephen Hayes, an attorney who represents Bean, said he could not comment on the video because nothing identifies where it was shot. He said the company would “object to publication of any video that depicts any of our employees or our facilities, as that violates their and our right to privacy.”
Although no state or federal laws govern how a lobster should be killed during commercial processing, Paden said he would meet with the Knox County District Attorney’s Office and Rockland police to ask for an investigation of Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster under the state’s animal cruelty statute.
In an email to the Press Herald, Hayes said, “Our practices do not violate Maine’s laws on cruelty to animals because lobsters do not come within the covered definition. Simply put, lobsters are not ‘sentient creatures,’ a position supported by long-standing and oft-repeated scientific and governmental studies.”
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, also disputed PETA’s claims, calling the organization an “extremist group” that should refrain from “casting its judgment on an industry it knows nothing about.”
McCarron said she has not seen the video. Although her organization does not represent processors, she said, she was troubled by PETA’s characterization of lobster processing.
“You can’t humanize a lobster,” she said. “They are food.”
Fourteen processors licensed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources process 10 million to 12 million pounds of lobster a year. That’s only about 10 percent of the state’s catch. Nearly 70 percent is processed in Canada, which has more plants.
Several Maine processors declined to discuss their methods for killing lobsters. Some of the employees who answered the phone said they were not authorized to talk about operations, and other processors did not return messages.
John Norton, president of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, would not discuss his processing methods in detail but said they differ from the method in the video.
“Our lobsters are dispatched before any limbs are removed,” he said, without elaborating.
He said he would not disparage the method shown in the video, which he viewed.
“I can’t tell you a specific industry standard because it’s highly competitive, so I can’t say what others do,” he said.
Norton said he was not impressed by the video, and believes that PETA is using it to solicit donations. If the group were trying to change the industry, he said, it would have approached lawmakers.
Kyle Murdock, who owns Sea Hag Seafood in Tenants Harbor, would not discuss his company’s practices, saying he doesn’t want negative publicity. There is no industry group that represents processors.
The Maine Lobster Council, which markets Maine lobster globally, is funded through fees from lobstermen, dealers and processors. A law passed this year raised its annual budget from $350,000 to $2 million. Representatives of the council did not return calls or emails for comment.
It’s not clear whether the process shown in the video is an accepted industry standard. PETA has said it doesn’t matter whether the process is limited to one facility.
“There are more humane alternatives,” Paden said.
He said PETA repeatedly approached Bean’s company before releasing the video to discuss “alternative slaughtering methods,” but was unsuccessful.
PETA said humane ways to kill lobsters include stunning them, which kills any nerves and any ability to feel pain. A less common method is “high-pressure processing,” which kills and cooks lobsters in seconds.
One Maine processor, Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster, uses high-pressure processing. It’s expensive but is considered by some to be a more humane method, said the company’s owner, John Hathaway.
McCarron, with the lobstermen’s association, said the industry has not discussed alternative processing methods because research indicates that lobsters cannot feel pain.
“Our customers should feel confident that our industry operates through the highest quality and food safety standards,” she said.
The research on whether crustaceans feel pain is inconclusive. Some European researchers cited by PETA have found that lobsters exhibit behaviors consistent with response to painful stimuli.
This is not the first time PETA has targeted the lobster industry. In 2008, it tried to open a “lobster empathy center” at an abandoned jail in Skowhegan to depict what a lobster goes through after it’s caught.
McCarron said PETA should not cast stones, given its history on animal rights. She cited allegations that the organization has killed thousands of animals despite its mission advocating “total animal liberation.” The claim is based on records obtained from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Hayes, the attorney for Bean, said in an emailed statement that her plant in Rockland may have been targeted by PETA because of her public profile and because the plant supplies lobster to the popular Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland.
Asked whether Bean was targeted, Paden said her public profile is coincidental and the organization’s intent is to shed light on industry practices.
Dick Grotton of the Maine Restaurant Association said he doesn’t think PETA’s claim will have much short-term impact.
“It’s not the first time claims have been made about the lobster industry,” he said. “But if it becomes a national issue, it could hurt. No one wants negative stories about an important industry.”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: