A new Wal-Mart policy may change the way Maine lobstermen do business.

The retail giant recently announced a goal to buy all wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for its North American stores from Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries within the next three to five years. Certain brand-name seafood products will be exempt.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a non-profit agency that develops policies for certification of fisheries worldwide. MSC certification examines both fishery stock and fishing practices to ensure that they are ecologically sustainable. Fisheries that successfully complete certification can use MSC’s distinct blue-and-white label on their products.

Currently, 14 fisheries worldwide are MSC-certified, with 40 more undergoing certification. In 2004 and 2005, some three million tons of MSC-certified seafood was sold worldwide.

But up until now, MSC has largely dealt with smaller fisheries. If Wal-Mart’s new fish-buying policy were implemented today, there wouldn’t be enough MSC-certified fish available to meet demand. Wal-Mart has said it will give non-certified suppliers three to five years to seek certification and it has pledged to help them develop plans and programs to become certified.

Because of its buying power, Wal-Mart’s move could cause shockwaves throughout the fishing industry, and it may force other retailers to buy only MSC-certified products, as well. In order to compete, the Maine lobster industry soon may need MSC’s seal of approval.

But Bob Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, doesn’t believe Wal-Mart’s new policy will have a major impact in Maine.

“The lobster industry in Maine is sustainable,” Bayer said.

A recent stock reassessment of Maine lobster backs up Bayer’s statement. In the past, federal regulators considered Maine lobster overfished, but a recent change in assessment practices has prompted scientists to declare the population stable.

Bayer also believes Wal-Mart’s MSC policy will not greatly influence the Maine lobster industry because the majority of Maine lobster is sold to Canada.

“I don’t see Wal-Mart as a big player,” he said.

But a February article in the Ellsworth American cited one Maine lobster dealer who said that Wal-Mart is the second-largest buyer of Maine lobster, buying two million pounds annually. The lobster dealer asked not to be named in the article out of concern for his relations with the retail giant.

Wal-Mart representatives refused to verify how much Maine lobster the company buys.

It seems that the Maine lobster industry will take preemptive action towards MSC certification, rather than wait. Patrice McCarron, executive director for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), says the state’s Lobster Promotion Council has been looking into MSC certification for some time now. The council recently won a grant to begin the certification process.

“It’s sort of been in the back of people’s minds,” she said.

McCarron agrees that Maine’s lobster industry is sustainable, but she also thinks certification might be necessary to maintain consumer confidence.

“Times are changing and I think consumers are looking for a seal of approval,” she said.

But some feel MSC certification will not go far enough to ensure lobster sustainability.

Diane Cowan of Maine’s Lobster Conservancy believes MSC certification is a nice initial step.

“It could do some good,” she said.

But it probably won’t stop Wal-Mart from selling oversized lobster, which would endanger the population and the industry, she says.

“They sell oversized lobsters all over the country,” she said.

While Maine’s upper size limit for lobster is five inches, national fishery standards have no upper limit. That’s a problem, says Cowan, because larger lobsters are better breeders.

“The bigger you are, the bigger the eggs and the more eggs,” she said.

There’s no guarantee that MSC certifiers will agree with local scientists that the Maine lobster industry is sustainable. No one in Maine seems to know exactly what the process of certification will entail.

Carl Wilson, chief lobster biologist with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, says MSC certification typically looks at much more than the pure numbers of a fishery’s species.

“Not only do they look at the lobster industry, they look at the big picture,” he said.

MSC certification criteria also consider a fishery’s impact on aquatic ecosystems. That means a certifier might take issue with lobster traps for their responsibility in right whale entanglement deaths.

“Even if it has nothing to do with the lobster fishery, it does have to do with the lobster industry,” Wilson said.

The other current unknown in this process is the cost of certification. MLA director McCarron says in the past, MSC certification was too cost-prohibitive to pursue. But George Lapointe, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, gave a relatively-affordable rough estimate of $25,000 to $100,000.

Such a difference of opinion is par for the course when it comes to MSC certification right now, says Lapointe.

“There’s a lot of questions swirling around,” he said.

Steve Rappaport of the Ellsworth American contributed to this article.