Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Lobstermen are contending with a glut of early-shedding crustaceans and a shortage of buyers that are combining to create historically low prices for the state’s iconic catch.
Lobsters are going for about $2.25 to $2.50 a pound at the dock, which is “as low as I’ve seen it in 30 years,” said David Cousens, the president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
It’s the same in stores, where prices were running $4.99 a pound at the Fishermen’s Net on Forest Avenue in Portland.
“It’s the lowest price I’ve ever seen in 30 years,” said Norman Solack, a partner in the store. “The tourists that show up on the Fourth of July are going to get a heck of a deal. It’s like saying, ‘Tourists, welcome to Maine.’ ”
The lobstermen will be happy to see the tourists return too, said Cousens, especially if it raises prices.
He said with the price of fuel and bait, fishermen need to get about $1 more a pound to break even.
The problem, Cousens said, is that several Canadian lobster processors – key buyers for soft-shell lobsters – are in their normal seasonal shutdowns. Lobsters are usually in short supply at this time of year because they’ve shed their shells and are usually hiding until they start to harden somewhat.
Lobsters tend to become much more plentiful in early July because the lobsters that have been hiding come out and, being hungry, head to the baited traps.
This year, however, lobsters in Maine waters shed several weeks early, probably due to abnormally high water temperatures, and are already filling lobstermen’s traps.
At Harbor Fish in Portland, they would expect to start seeing softshell lobsters now, said manager Ron Smith, but instead they’ve been selling them for a month. Lobsters at Harbor Fish start at $4.49 a pound for softshell, Smith said.
Cousens said the early shedding is a key cause of the problem of too much supply and not enough demand.
“No one’s ready for them,” he said. “The tourists aren’t here yet.”
Cousens said lobstermen could simply tie up their boats and wait for the surplus to be absorbed and prices to start rising. However, they are famously independent and most wouldn’t do so voluntarily, Cousens said.
He also said it would be illegal to have a concerted “strike,” because that would violate anti-trust laws.
Dealers, he said, could tell their suppliers to hold off fishing for a while, but they have no incentive to do so. Cousens said dealers generally charge the same markup regardless of the wholesale price, so it’s not in their interest to discourage lobstermen from harvesting the shellfish.
But prices are likely to start to climb soon, said Robert Bayer, executive director of University of Maine’s Lobster Institute.
Processors will soon start buying when the seasonal shutdown ends, Bayer said, because the demand for frozen lobster meat is stronger than for fresh meat.
“The number of places that are now selling lobster rolls is amazing,” and many are far enough from Maine that they must be using processed and frozen meat, rather than fresh, he said.
Bayer said many people view July 4 as the start of the lobster season, since it’s usually around that date that the softshells start coming onto the market in sizeable numbers.
Tourists are more likely to come to Maine seeking lobsters in July and August, he said, boosting the consumer market.
“There are plenty of positive signs,” Bayer said. “It’s a waiting game.”
But Cousens said he’s worried that the recovery will be a lot slower than the decline. The price, he said, typically “goes down in quarters and goes up in nickels.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: