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How an L.L. Bean heiress is declaring war on our lobsters

During an episode of Kitchen Nightmares last fall, British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay went on a tirade against one of the owners of a Manhattan seafood restaurant. The man's sin? He was serving customers "Maine lobster" that was really from Canada - and didn't seem to think it made any difference.

That miscue gave the famously foul-mouthed Mr. Ramsay plenty of fodder for a meltdown, and a year later, with bilateral-trade relations increasingly strained by Washington's Buy America campaign, the cross-border crustacean war rages on.

This week, the bad-boy chef's bad-mouthing of Canada landed him on the cover of Portland Monthly ("Maine's City Magazine"). The headline: Gordon Ramsay Drops the Bomb on Fake Maine Lobster.

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But the lord of the The F-Word is not the only mover and shaker who's stirring the lobster pot. In fact, one of them is having an even more dramatic impact.

Two weeks ago, Linda L. Bean, the outspoken heiress to the L.L. Bean mail-order clothing empire, told The New York Times that she is out to "save Maine's most iconic industry by ending its dependence on Canadian processors."

She happens to own a processing plant, as well as a chain of shops that specialize in lobster rolls. Now, she is trying to bring boutique marketing to the fishery by branding the local lobster much like the woodsy shirts and hunting shoes the company founded in 1912 by her grandfather Leon Leonwood Bean ships from its base in Freeport, Me.

"What we're trying to do is raise it up a notch in terms of identification as being very special," she explained, while dismissing lobsters from Canada as "imposters."

In reality, many of those imposters are prodigals being sent home. Roughly 60 per cent of the state's catch is processed in Atlantic Canada, which, with nearly 50 plants versus Maine's four, can do the job more cheaply. The lobsters are sold both frozen and fresh-packed - but as products of Canada.

Ms. Bean, who is 68 and has twice run for Congress, unsuccessfully, as a Republican, wants to change this arrangement. She also wants to have the lobster fishery certified as environmentally sustainable.

She is reportedly in a position to buy 5 per cent of Maine's catch. That seems like a lot of lobster for someone who has been in the business less than three years, except that the catch totalled 67.4 million pounds last year.

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And not everyone agrees with Ms. Bean that Maine lobsters shouldn't cross the border. "This is her opinion, not the opinion of anyone else in the state of Maine," says Peter McAleney, president of the Maine Import-Export Lobster Dealers Association.

The relationship with Canada, he adds, goes well beyond processing. Because the fishing seasons vary, the availability of lobster fluctuates, and "I've been buying from Canada for 31 years. Six months, I have my own, six months, I get Canadian lobsters. … I don't know where the heck she's going to get her lobsters in the spring.

"It's very complex, and you can't let one individual ruin the relationship between Canada and the U.S."

Trevor Corson, bestselling author of The Secret Life of Lobsters , feels that Ms. Bean could have framed her argument in a "more diplomatic" fashion.

"I don't know that using the term 'imposter lobster' is really necessary," he says, laughing. "Americans and Canadians have a long history of co-operating over lobster issues."

The fracas certainly comes at a bad time for Canadian producers, whose industry is in such poor shape that last week federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced, during a meeting with her provincial counterparts, the creation of the Lobster Council of Canada.

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With representatives of the fishermen, processors and buyers, the council will try to increase exports and drive up prices for an industry that employs 30,000 people.

So it's easy to see why Canadian officials aren't keen to join the fray in Maine. The Maritime Fishermen's Union, based in Shediac, N.B., says it would rather not comment unless the situation worsens, and Tony Jabbour, a general manager at Clearwater Foods in Halifax who sits on the council, says the new body has "bigger fish to fry."

Ms. Bean declined to be interviewed for this story, but in July she told The Boston Globe why Canadian meat isn't served at Linda Bean's Perfect Maine Lobster Roll franchises:

"We want to engender in people's minds a sense of trust about the product that our fish is authentic from Maine, handled professionally and safely, wild caught and sustainable - that it's worth a little more in their mind, so they want to spend a little more on it."

Mr. Corson, himself a former lobster fisherman, says she is on to something.

"The big challenge for the seafood industry in achieving sustainability is figuring out how to brand and source seafood. The main issue for consumers is: How do you know where your fish came from?

"In that sense, her idea is quite visionary."

Mr. McAleney counters that "I've heard the argument about sustainability, but it's more complicated than that. The lobster industry is one of the most sustainable industries in the world. We limit our catch, limit the number of traps. We've done it all, we're trying like hell."

Okay but who wins the cross-border taste test?

Mr. Corson says flavour isn't the point: "It's not about which lobster is a better lobster. It's about what are the fisheries doing to safeguard the future of the species."

But as Gordon Ramsay told Portland Monthly, "there is something special" about those from Maine.

Not according to Mr. McAleney. He describes Canadian crustaceans as "second to none."

He also insists that "consumers don't care. The meat is the same. It doesn't taste any different."

Shawna Richer is a journalist living in Toronto

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