Maine’s lobsters are about to get new scrutiny.
The Department of Marine Resources has put out a call for proposals to gauge the impact of warming Gulf of Maine waters on lobster biology, populations and susceptibility to disease. A separate study will attempt to measure the economic impact of Maine’s most valuable fishery beyond what lobstermen are paid for their catch.
The department has earmarked up to $700,000 to pay for the studies, with the money coming out of the Lobster Research, Education and Development Fund. The money in that fund comes from sales of the lobster license plate.
Research proposals are due Thursday. The department’s request for proposals suggests the contracts will be awarded by early March, but department spokesman Jeff Nichols said the timing depends on how many proposals are received and how quickly a panel is formed to review them.
The department said it needs the research to determine how to help maintain the industry’s remarkable health over the past 20 or 30 years. Lobster landed in Maine was valued at a record $465.9 million in 2014, up more than fourfold in the past two decades. The catch by 5,818 commercial license holders made up 78 percent of the value of commercial fishery landings in the state.
Carl Wilson, director of the department’s Bureau of Marine Science, said “there are sufficient questions” about what’s happening with climate change and its impact on the Gulf of Maine to warrant more study.
For the past few decades, he said, the lobster population off Maine has been growing rapidly, while it has largely collapsed in southern New England. And even within Maine waters there are variations, with southern Maine lobster populations largely showing no increase, while the fishery has grown strongly in Down East Maine.
“It’s a dynamic system,” Wilson said, and “a lot of the underlying assumptions we’ve been using were developed in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. We need to do a little bit of a reset on our underlying assumptions.”
The industry has been volatile in the past few years, and the growth in the size of the catch has begun to level off. The market was chaotic in 2012, when unusual winter warmth in the Gulf of Maine got the lobster season off to a very early and strong spring start. The lobsters also began shedding two months early, which left the industry overwhelmed with lobsters that wouldn’t survive long trips out of state to markets in New York and elsewhere along the East Coast.
Maine lobstermen were forced to take their catch to processors in Canada, driving prices there below $2.50 a pound, which sparked protests among Canadian fishermen upset over the low prices.
Then last year, the unusual cold and snowy weather delayed the start of the season, but prices held steady and the industry remained healthy.
Wilson said industry leaders, some of whom are on the board of the Lobster Research, Education and Development Fund, are eager to finance research to help the fishery stay productive.
Research is also important for the business and marketing side of the industry, said Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
He said the only real data the industry has on the economics of lobster are landing volumes and the value of the catch, which are monitored by the Department of Marine Resources.
Jacobson said the state and his organization need more data to measure whether their marketing campaigns are having any effect.
For context, he made the comparison that the National Pork Board pays Cornell University $300,000 for a detailed analysis of pork in the marketplace, which it can track because there are bar codes on every package of pork that is processed and sold.
“We have nothing like that,” he said. “It is really hard for us to track lobster through the supply chain.”
For instance, a dealer/processor may pay a lobsterman $5 for a pound of lobster and then that dealer sells it to a distributor, who sells it to a restaurant, where that lobster is sold to a diner in a $50 meal.
So did the lobsterman get a fair deal for that lobster?
“We have no good data on that, and that’s a problem for us,” Jacobson said.
Nichols said the state mandates that lobster dealers report on the landed value of lobster, but there’s “virtually no analysis of the value of the fishery and industry along its entire supply chain, from the point of first sale to the consumer.”
He said the study will help quantify how many jobs the industry supports, and the direct and indirect values generated by the fishery.
Both studies, he said, will help his department refine regulations and adopt policies aimed at making the fishery sustainable.