PORTLAND — Ocean temperatures have been higher than normal in the Gulf of Maine, creating worries among lobstermen that there could be a repeat of last spring’s early harvest that resulted in a market glut, a crash in the prices fishermen get and a blockade of Maine-caught lobsters in Canada.
Temperature readings at selected ocean buoys off the Maine coast have been lower than last winter, but they’ve still been above normal the past few months. Some fishermen are already finding some soft-shell lobsters in traps, months earlier than usual.
Fishermen don’t want to see a recurrence of last year, when the strong early catch caused prices to plummet and tensions to boil over when Canadian lobstermen, angered by the low prices, blocked truckloads of Maine’s catch from being delivered to processing plants in Canada.
“I guess we’re kind of just holding our breath,” said Bruce Fernald, a longtime lobsterman from Cranberry Isles off Mount Desert Island.
Fishermen were scratching their heads last year when lobsters began showing up in traps in large numbers four to six weeks earlier than usual. Maine’s lobster catch, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the total U.S. harvest, typically begins picking up in late June or early July as the bottom-dwelling crustaceans start getting active while shedding their hard shells in favor of new soft shells.
Last year’s early flood of lobsters, combined with a strong Canadian spring catch, drove down prices and created a mess for lobstermen and dealers with supply far exceeding demand. For the year, fishermen hauled in a record 126 million pounds of product. But they received only $2.69 a pound on average, the lowest price since 1994.
Warm ocean waters were blamed in large part for last year’s early surge. With Gulf of Maine water temperatures again running above average, fishermen and scientists are wondering when the lobsters will show up in volume this year.
The Associated Press analyzed temperature data collected at 50 meters deep from two ocean data buoys known as the eastern Maine and western Maine shelf buoys that are overseen by the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems.
In 2012, both buoys had record or near-record temperatures for the period for which data are available, from 2001 to 2012. A year ago, temperatures at those buoys were about 3 degrees above normal. This year, they’re running 1 to 2 degrees above average.
A degree or two may not sound like much, but it is if you’re a lobster, said Rick Wahle, a research professor at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences at the Darling Marine Center in Bristol.
A lobster’s growth and activity ramp up when the water warms up, he said. Water temperatures this February for the most part were at levels normally not reached until late May or early June. They’ve since cooled down a bit, but early April’s temperatures were still at levels usually not reached for three to five more weeks in the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia.
“We aren’t likely to see as an extreme of an event as last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an earlier-than-normal shed,” Wahle said. “A lot will depend on how the next few weeks play out.”
Typically, late June or early July is when Maine’s lobster catch picks up as lobsters shed their hard shells and grow soft ones in their place. Soft-shell lobsters, or shedders, have less meat than hard-shell ones, but they are easier to crack open and sell for a lower price.
This year, some lobstermen have already been bringing in small numbers of soft-shell lobsters from waters farther offshore. And they’re getting split prices for their catch, with the soft-shell lobsters selling for less than the hard-shell variety.
David Johnson, from Long Island in Casco Bay, has been catching some shedders in traps 250 to 450 feet deep, 6 miles offshore.
“Years ago you never saw that,” Johnson said by phone while pulling traps one day last week. “Last year was the first year we saw that.”
Still, it’s hard to say what the coming months will bring and just how strong the early harvest will be, fishermen and scientists agree. Air temperature, rainfall and sunshine all play a factor in how warm the waters are.
Even if there is an early deluge of lobsters like last year, lobstermen and dealers are better prepared to handle it, said Walter Day, who’s been fishing for more than 50 years on Vinalhaven, an island with lobster-rich waters 15 miles off Maine’s mid-coast.
Dealers can more easily handle an early influx of product, he said, because there’s no large inventory of live lobsters in Canada and no frozen lobster product inventory to speak of. Canadian lobster processors — half or more of Maine’s harvest is sent to Canada for processing – are also prepared to open early to handle the catch, he said.
Day, who has been pulling traps since he was 10, said no two lobster-fishing seasons are alike: “As I always say, call next January and we can tell you more about this season.”