PORTLAND — Lobstermen need to think more like wild-blueberry farmers.

That was the suggestion of many who attended a town meeting Friday for U.S. and Canadian lobstermen on the future of their industry. More than 120 fishermen, retailers, dealers and others brainstormed ways to lift their industry out of its slump.

Many pointed to the example of blueberry farmers in the United States and Canada, who formed the Wild Blueberry Association of North America to research and promote the wild blueberry and its health benefits.

The lobstermen said they should take similar steps to get their product into more pots in Europe and Asia.

The town meeting is an annual, two-day event sponsored by the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute. It rotates between Portland and St. John, New Brunswick.

On the first day of this year’s gathering, the discussion was dominated by the idea of promoting lobsters and figuring out how to put more of the $900 million north Atlantic lobster fishery into lobstermen’s pockets.

Part of the problem is that lobstermen are catching too many lobsters, said Michael Gardner, an economist who analyzes the industry. The total tons landed annually by Canadian and American lobstermen increased from 70,000 in 1996 to 100,000 by 2008.

“Supply is way ahead of demand,” Gardner said.

The price of lobster peaked several years ago and has plummeted since then, as the recession has reduced demand.

Maine lobstermen received an average of $2.93 a pound last year, down from $4.39 in 2007, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Many lobstermen at the forum expressed frustration over the prices they are getting and the prices customers are paying for lobster in restaurants.

John Carter, a lobsterman from Bar Harbor, said he was getting $2.75 a pound for his lobster at the wharf last summer, while 100 yards away a restaurant sold lobster for $24.95.

“That is a hard pill to swallow,” he said.

He said the imbalance has created mistrust between lobstermen and the buyers, shippers, distributors and retailers.

“We have to find a way to get beyond that,” said Carter.

Edward McFarland, owner of Ed’s Lobster Bar in New York, said he understands the complaints of lobstermen who question the gap between what they get and the $27 he charges for a 6½-ounce lobster roll.

“I have overhead, electricity and other costs,” he said.

Attendees had various ideas to promote lobster to the 85 percent of Americans who do not eat it, and to establish the same hunger for lobster that Japan has for bluefin tuna and other types of fish.

Klaus Sonnenberg of the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association in New Brunswick suggested getting service organizations such as Rotary International to sponsor lobster bakes instead of chicken suppers.

Mike Dassatt, a lobsterman from Belfast, pushed for a system similar to the Canadian crab industry’s, in which processors contract prices with fishermen before they go to sea.

Dana Rice, a lobster dealer from Birch Harbor, called on the industry to finance a marketing effort, starting with the fishermen.

“We need to put the money where our mouths are,” Rice said. “If we don’t have any money to advertise our product, we will be right back here in another 20 years.”

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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