March 17, 2010

Lobster industry suffers decline

TOM BELL

— By

Lobster
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Lobster

AP

AP A ME USA Fishermen Lobsters
click image to enlarge

AP A ME USA Fishermen Lobsters

AP

Staff Writer

Maine's lobster industry is looking a lot like the stock market these days. Since the early 1990s, the industry has enjoyed record catches and strong demand. But the good times might be over.

In 2007, the total harvest fell by nearly 23 percent, according to preliminary figures released by the state -- from 73 million pounds in 2006 to 56 million pounds last year. Total revenue declined 16 percent, from $297 million to $249 million.

In both dollars and pounds, it was the largest drop in nearly a half-century, according to a review of statistics kept by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The 2007 landings were down 40 percent from their peak in 2003.

Scientists don't know why the landings are down, though a potential culprit is an increase in predators such as striped bass and cod, which are increasing in numbers.

Whatever the reason, the timing couldn't be worse for the industry.

Fishermen are paying more for bait and fuel, and the price of lobsters hasn't climbed enough to make up the difference. Moreover, demand for lobster is expected to slacken if the nation goes into a recession, said Peter McAleney, president of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association.

''It doesn't look good for the dealers or the fishermen,'' said McAleney, who owns New Meadows Lobster in Portland. ''The consumer will not pay it because they can't afford it.''

George Lapointe, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said he will meet with biologists to discuss what might be going on with the lobster population.

He said the drop in revenue meant that millions less went into Maine's coastal economy. ''You can't divide that up any way that doesn't hurt,'' he said.

The decline was not a surprise to the industry, though.

Lobstermen and dealers reported sluggish catches for much of last summer and fall. The numbers will change somewhat, most likely upward, as the state receives more data in the coming months.

Although the drop in 2007 is troubling, the catch was well above average for the past 30 years, noted Cutler lobsterman Kristan Porter, who serves on the board of directors for the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

He said it's too early to start panicking.

''We've had increases all along, but it's finally leveling back,'' he said ''This is just one snapshot. But if next year is the same, and the year after that, we've got a problem.''

The 2007 harvest was the smallest since 1997, he said.

There are a million more traps in Maine waters than there were in '97, said Carl Wilson, a biologist with the Department of Marine Resources.

Also, the typical lobster boat is much more expensive, and the fleet has grown in size and power.

That means there's a lot more investment in the industry and the expectations are higher than they were a decade ago, Wilson said.

''You have an industry that has expanded in the good times and is now being stretched when the population has declined from the peak,'' he said.

Lapointe said some lobstermen have borrowed too much money and are struggling to make loan payments.

''We may have some shake-out in that regard,'' he said. ''That's troubling, because there are real families and communities behind it.''

Because of the decline in landings, Machias Savings Bank has allowed some lobstermen to restructure their loans.

Fifteen years ago, lobstermen were spending $35,000 to $50,000 to buy boats and a 32-footer was considered large, said David Eldridge, vice president of commercial banking for Machias Savings Bank.

Now the boats are more powerful and typically range from 35 feet to 50 feet, with prices of $200,000 to $400,000.

Wilson said the drop in landings is consistent with studies in the late 1990s showing that fewer lobster larvae were reaching the point of maturity where they could settle to the ocean's bottom and start crawling.

In recent years, he said, the ''settlement index'' has increased, which suggests that the lobster population might rebound.

Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine's Lobster Institute, said he's not worried that the lobster population could be crashing.

That's because Maine's strict lobster rules ensure the protection of large lobsters -- the ''brood stock'' -- that produce the most offspring.

''What this means to me is that we still have a certain amount of stock safety,'' he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

tbell@pressherald.com

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