PORTLAND — After enduring low prices because of a lobster glut this summer, Peter McAleney felt the seafood industry was finally starting to stabilize this fall.
That is, until Superstorm Sandy hit the coast. The storm not only spread physical devastation, it shut down major seafood markets.
“There’s been nothing going on — no trucks, planes or anything going down through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,” said McAleney, who owns New Meadows Lobster Co. in Portland. “People aren’t interested in seafood right now. They’re interested in getting their lives back in order.”
The result is likely to be a repeat of the lobster glut — affecting the entire seafood industry this time — with demand dropping out of sight in the biggest markets of the Northeast.
McAleney said he lost a big order from Pennsylvania Thursday morning because his customer decided he wouldn’t sell much lobster to thousands of people who still don’t have electricity.
“Seafood is the last thing you’re going to bring home to a house without power,” said Chris Fream, senior sales executive with North Atlantic Seafood in Portland.
The industry’s “wheels are falling off,” said Fream. “New York is not taking fish and all the seaside restaurants up and down the East Coast are not open or not having any demand.”
Fream said the major fish markets in and around New York aren’t selling much fish, so they aren’t buying it.
And restaurants that do have power aren’t buying seafood because families who have no electricity and have to eat out are more likely to opt for quick, cheap meals than a leisurely seafood dinner.
Fream said he even has gotten calls from fishing boat captains in Massachusetts who are seeking buyers for their catch. Those fishermen generally sell to markets in Massachusetts, he said.
Fream and others in the industry noted that there was a jump in landings last weekend as fishing fleets headed into port to avoid the storm barreling up the coast.
The Portland Fish Exchange auction handled 65,643 pounds of fish on Saturday, selling all but 500 pounds of what was offered. Prices held up, with large cod going for an average of $4.53 a pound and large dab getting $2.05 a pound.
On Thursday, after the storm, fishermen took just 9,502 pounds to the auction, and sold only 7,519 pounds. Large cod brought an average of just $3.43 a pound, and large dab sold for 60 cents a pound, even though only miniscule amounts of both were offered for sale.
“It sucks,” said Jared Auerbach, owner of Red’s Best seafood in Boston, which handles fish from Maine fishermen. “There’s just no demand, and it’s killing people right now.”
Auerbach said he’s facing a potentially significant loss because he didn’t think Sandy would be as bad as it was. The markets, he thought, might be disrupted for a day or two, then return to normal.
“The fish we bought (last weekend), we ended up overpaying for because I didn’t anticipate the storm would be as bad as it was,” he said. “Now, our customers don’t have power and some don’t even have phone lines.”
As with the lobster glut this summer, the current situation offers a bright side for seafood lovers in Maine.
Prices will fall for consumers, particularly this weekend, said Nick Alfiero, whose family runs Harbor Fish Market on the Portland waterfront.
“Every dealer in Boston has fish in the coolers they’re trying to sell,” he said.
So when people go out, either to eat in a restaurant or buy something to cook at home, the low prices will get them to go for fish, Alfiero said, which will help ease some of the glut.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: