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Networking: Michael Tlusty

Director of research, New England Aquarium Boston

“Just because ASC-certified tilapia is on the market, the work’s not over. We need to get more product in the market, with a greater understanding and acceptance.”  — Michael Tlusty, Director of Research, New England Aquarium - Photo courtesy of New England Aquarium
By James Wright
June 01, 2013

When I first met Michael Tlusty in the summer of 2008, it was in the confines of the New England Aquarium’s upstairs offices and laboratories, where he showed me the tiniest lobsters I’d ever seen. The translucent little creatures, which could have fit on your thumbnail, potentially held important clues regarding the species’ future. Tlusty’s studies on lobster shell disease are particularly important as the ocean ecosystems slowly transform, putting crustaceans and other sea creatures in precarious positions. But his work goes well beyond the “lobster lab” — he sits on committees for both the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), helping to create and refine standards for both certification schemes. Aside from work on lobster, tilapia, yellowtail and shrimp are his other fields of research. 

When I most recently caught up with Tlusty, 47, he unfortunately wasn’t in his lab — the aquarium, like many of Boston’s other cultural institutions, was closed on April 19 due to a citywide lockdown, the result of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings. Because it was school-vacation week in the region, the aquarium and other cultural institutions were expecting a lot of visitors. Life in the beautiful city of Boston certainly won’t ever be the same. 

What’s the latest from the lobster lab? 

We’re trying to work on a model of how shell disease starts and the factors going into it, just so we can start some hypothesis-driven testing. A lot of it is opportunistic where you pick up sick animals. But you don’t know what their histories are. We’re trying to see how temperature affects this. We’re one of the few organizations that can do this kind of work.

Maine lobster catches seem to break records every year. Why?  

There are a lot of factors. One of the biggest ones is the change in the ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine. We took out a lot of key predators. For adult lobsters, humans are the last real predator. There are shifts in the way fisheries respond. For instance, we had a closure of the cod fishery and then a million more lobster traps [put] in the water. We are seeing temperature changes, and lobsters are on the move earlier. It’s easier to go out fishing earlier. 

ASC-certified tilapia is now on the market. How does it feel to finally see that?  

On one hand, it’s always good to see something you’ve worked on for a long time come to fruition. But you see the reality: It’s only a few farms certified; it doesn’t reach much of the market. Just because ASC-certified tilapia is on the market, the work’s not over. We need to get more product in the market, with a greater understanding and acceptance. We need to go back through and assess how the farms are performing against the standard and set values appropriately.

How do the BAP and ASC processes differ? 

In a lot of ways, they’re more similar than they are different. The [Global Aquaculture Alliance] was an industry-led standard in the beginning. They had a shrimp standard out and then NGOs approached them, which ultimately led to the standards oversight committee. As these aquaculture certifications come out, we’re kind of writing the rules about how you create standards. What’s necessary from a multi-stakeholder standpoint? What’s the perfect composition of that? There’s also the question of effort — how much is not enough? Is there a point at which you’re not getting any more benefit by being more inclusive? 

They’ve both done a good job of working with a bunch of unknowns and still getting products out to market. The next biggest thing is what’s the ultimate goal for each of the certification programs? GAA was formed to get rid of the worst actors and the ASC was formed to recognize the top 20 percent and because of that they will be different. We work with both to make sure that they are meeting the goals the group adheres to and to look to opportunities to work together synergistically.


Find other SeaFood Business articles mentioning Michael Tlusty here.

June 2013 - SeaFood Business

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