For those in the lobster industry, any sign of a return to the conditions of 2012 is cause for high anxiety.
Researchers say the industry needs to be prepared for that possibility because warming trends are laying the groundwork for a potential repeat of the disastrous season of four years ago.
“We learned a hard lesson in 2012,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
Because of warm waters in the Gulf of Maine, peak harvesting started in May that year, weeks ahead of schedule. The catch jumped more than 20 percent, from 104 million pounds in 2011 to 127 million pounds in 2012. The shedding season, when lobsters lose their hard shells and grow new ones, typically happens in June and results in soft-shelled lobsters that are difficult to transport. In 2012, shedding began almost as soon as the lobstermen started pulling in traps, and extended into the fall.
As a result, prices paid to lobstermen fell to as low as $2 a pound.
Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, said Thursday that the stage is set for a possible repeat of 2012, at least weather-wise.
Pershing said five buoys that measure water temperatures around the gulf are all running above average, and three are at record highs.
“The average surface temperature across the entire Gulf of Maine is now slightly warmer than during the 2012 ocean heat wave,” Pershing said.
Temperatures also were running high in the autumns of 2013 and 2014, Pershing said, but late winter cold eventually pushed those readings down. Last year, in fact, outbreaks of Arctic air pushing into New England caused water temperatures to drop below average from late winter into early summer.
But Pershing said the warming of the Pacific Ocean called El Nino makes weather in the Northeast more predictable and, despite a cold snap predicted for late next week, long-range forecasts call for temperatures to run above average for the rest of the winter and into the beginning of the spring.
Pershing issues an annual prediction of when lobsters, which spend the winter in deep water offshore, will begin moving closer to shore where they are typically harvested. Although he won’t issue a final forecast until next month, he said the warm water temperatures make it appear likely that the season will kick off in earnest in May, about a month ahead of a typical year.
McCarron said the experience of the past two years makes her a little skeptical of extrapolating that higher water-temperature readings this winter will continue into spring.
“We take a more cautious approach, but we’re going to watch it,” she said. “It was really the first time in the industry when we had that kind of volume coming in that early in the season, and no one was prepared for it.”
The lobster industry is Maine’s most lucrative commercial fishery, bringing in $457 million in 2014, the last year of available data.
SURPRISED IN 2012, GEARED UP NOW
McCarron and others in the industry said a lot has changed in the past four years, enough that a repeat of the market conditions in 2012 is less likely if the warmer-than-average temperatures continue.
Four years ago, “nobody was ramped up and we didn’t have the customers ready” for either the early season or the volume of lobsters that were caught, she said.
In 2012, the state had fewer processors, the companies that cook the lobsters and package the meat. Those that were operating, she said, didn’t gear up when the early season catch came in so strong. As a result, dealers trucked Maine lobster to Canada, where lobstermen operate within strict seasonal dates and a regional catch limit. The last-ditch effort to recover some of the value of the Maine catch sparked protests by Canadian lobstermen, who said Maine’s lobster was flooding their market and causing prices to plummet.
Today, McCarron said, processors can learn from history and gear up earlier if the catches pick up in early May.
Processors and dealers, she said, also have invested in bigger and better facilities and tanks that can hold more lobster for longer periods, so a glut is less likely.
For instance, Maine Fair Trade Lobster bought a former sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor in 2013 and opened a 100,000-square-foot lobster processing plant. It processed 4.3 million pounds of lobster that year. In 2014, production was 7.5 million pounds and last year it was 8.3 million pounds, said Christina Ferranti-Clift, spokeswoman for East Coast Seafood and Garbo Lobster Co., the co-owners of the facility.
The plant employed 150 during the lobster season last year, she said.
McCarron said the lobster catch also has stabilized since 2012 and its market has grown stronger. That means there are ready buyers for meat from soft-shell lobsters, as well as the traditional fresh, hard-shell lobsters.
“Would an early shed be difficult for our industry? Absolutely,” she said. “Are we better prepared and would we come through it better? Absolutely.”
But Tim Harkins, the owner of Rocky Coast Lobster in Boothbay, isn’t so sure.
Harkins said he added a “cooking and picking room” to his lobster holding-tank facility after the 2012 glut. That room allows him to cook and pick lobsters if he can’t hold an entire catch in his tank. It also means he can salvage the value from soft-shell lobsters, which often aren’t hardy enough to go to live lobster markets outside of Maine and can only survive a short period in a holding tank.
Harkins said that although the room gives him more flexibility to manage his inventory, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to handle the kind of catches that lobstermen brought in four years ago.
“I’d need a 25,000-square-foot facility, not a 250-square-foot room,” said Harkins, president of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association.
And while Maine’s added processing capacity is good, Harkins said, there’s still a significant gamble. If processors hire workers, set up machinery and buy packaging in May because they anticipate an early catch, they could be facing an expensive few weeks of little production if the catch instead follows a typical schedule and doesn’t gear up until mid-June.
“We can try to be aware of it,” Harkins said of lobster season predictions, “but in terms of dealing with it, it’s a really tricky dynamic.”
MARKETING CAMPAIGNS READY
If the catch does come in early, the industry’s marketing arm is ready to hawk it.
Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said the organization has promotional materials and contacts with food magazine editors all lined up, “it’s just a matter of turning that on.” In fact, the industry-funded organization is currently promoting lobster tails for Super Bowl “tailgating” parties, Jacobson said, part of an effort to move frozen lobster tails from last year’s catch.
He said the group has launched a marketing campaign for soft-shell lobsters, now dubbed “new shells,” to avoid confusion with soft-shelled crabs.
Jacobson said some confused consumers wondered if they could eat a whole “new lobster,” including the shell, like they can with soft-shelled crab.
Consumers still equate summer with a boiled lobster, but Jacobson said the industry is ready to adapt and avoid the hit it took in 2012.
“Maybe we’re better equipped this time,” he said. “Rather than just take what happens, we’ve got a shot this time.”