Hundreds of years ago, Spanish Wells located in The Bahamas, was known as an oceanic crossroad for ships traveling between the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Its name comes from the freshwater wells that supplied water to ships on their way back to Spain. Today, the colorful and quiet mile-long island of Spanish Wells has become the largest lobster-fishing port in The Bahamas, surrounded by stunning coral reefs and clear water that draw not only divers and snorkelers to the area, but also provide prime habitat for rock lobster, also known as spiny lobster. In fact, Bahamian lobster is a $90 million industry that employs about 9,000 fishermen (mostly family businesses from the area) selling 6 million pounds of rock lobster tails annually—primarily to the United States.
Like the Maine lobster industry, those in the rock lobster business know that conservation is vital to the sustainability of the species and the long-term economic prosperity of The Bahamas. In 2018, the Bahamian rock lobster fishery earned an eco-certification from a leading global environmental standard thanks to support from fishermen, the Bahamian government, lobster exporters, companies like Red Lobster, and organizations including The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) through a Fishery Improvement Project (or FIP). Companies like Red Lobster support FIPs by buying from the fishery, providing direct financial support, encouraging suppliers and fishermen to participate in the project, and engaging local government agencies to improve policy and enforcement. Working together, conservation groups and the seafood industry can be a powerful force for improving the sustainability of seafood and the health of ocean ecosystems.
A FIP is a step-by-step approach to address environmental challenges and improve the management of a fishery in order to meet a measurable goal, which in the case of The Bahamas was eco-certification. Over the course of eight years, the Bahamian lobster fishery has worked to meet the high standards set by the eco-certification body. And today, Spanish Wells is a model of sustainability. Some of the accomplishments under the Bahamian rock lobster FIP include:
- A peer-reviewed stock assessment and data collection and management system to monitor the health of the lobster stock
- A public forum for stakeholders to participate in the management of the lobster fishery
- A zero-tolerance policy for harvesting undersized lobster for The Bahamas Marine Exporters Association
- Monitoring of and enforcement against illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing
- A lobster harvest strategy, a fishery management plan, and procedures to review the performance of the lobster fishery management
This work has set the standards by which all the fishermen in The Bahamas fish for rock lobster, including always checking the size of the lobsters to make sure they're big enough and leaving the egg carrying females so the population can reproduce and remain abundant.
Responsible fishing practices have been a priority for Red Lobster since the restaurant company was founded more than 50 years ago. Today, Red Lobster's supply chain team, including Skip Frisz, Director of Procurement, spend time establishing face-to-face relationships with seafood suppliers to make sure they're following the rules and upholding Red Lobster's standards.
One of the ways Red Lobster is supporting improvements in the sustainability of rock lobster fisheries is by partnering with WWF. WWF works globally with the seafood industry, governments, fishing communities, academia, and NGOs to transition fisheries towards sustainability and help them adopt practices set by FIPs.
Wendy Goyert is the Lead Specialist for fisheries in transition for WWF in the U.S.; her job is to support fisheries in FIPs and to ensure they are taking the steps needed to improve their sustainability. In the case of The Bahamas lobster fishery, this includes making sure the lobster population remains healthy and the fishery follows the rules.
Out on the open waters, many of the Spanish Wells fishermen also support the sustainability efforts by upholding FIP standards and checking the catch when it comes in off the boats. By not over-harvesting and throwing back egg-bearing females and undersized lobsters, they are not only maintaining the rock lobster population, but the economic livelihood of the Bahamian fishermen. The fishermen are big proponents of maintaining high standards in rock lobster fishing because they know it also ensures the livelihood for future generations of fishermen as well. For example, Thomas Pinder, 30, is an eighth-generation fisherman who is part of a family that has fished these waters; his father, Chuck, taught him the family business, and Chuck's brother-in-law, Gill, is the owner of the export company Ronald's Seafood. Gill has been supplying Red Lobster with rock lobster from The Bahamas for over 30 years.
“We've been able to sustain the fishing industry here and grow it tremendously,” Gill says. “And Red Lobster has been a big part of that because we have sustained the quality that Red Lobster needs.”
And fishing for the Pinders is more than just a job.
According to the Pinders, there are more rock lobsters in Spanish Wells today than there were 30 years ago. Red Lobster, WWF, the Pinders and many others that touch the region remain committed to upholding a heritage of sustainable fishing for many generations to come. With pride in his business and product, Thomas is paying that forward with his crew, whom he calls the “young generation of Spanish Wells.”