July 14, 2012

Are lobstermen keeping their traps shut?

A glut in supply has led to record low prices. But if lobster fishermen are breaking the law to boost demand, they’re not saying.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Lobstermen up and down the Maine coast are keeping their lips sealed tighter than a lobster claw.

They can't talk about the historically high supply of their product. They can't talk about the historically low prices they are getting for their catch. They can't talk about whether they have agreed to keep their boats tied up until things improve -- because talking about it might imply that it's a concerted effort and a concerted effort would be a violation of federal anti-trust laws.

David Cousens of South Thomaston, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, often acts as a spokesman for the industry. He's usually chatty. Reached by telephone this week, Cousens said "No comment," before a question could even be asked. Then, he hung up.

Several other members of the lobstermen's association also declined to talk. Some indicated that they have been advised by an attorney to keep quiet.

The current problem can be explained by simple economics. A glut of lobsters -- soft-shell lobsters, to be precise -- has driven down the price that wholesalers are willing to pay lobstermen for their catch.

To help bring demand for their product back, lobstermen have stopped bringing new product to market. They are staying home.

"It just doesn't make sense to go out," said Tim Brunell, a lobsterman based in Pine Point and one of the few who agreed to talk.

Brunell said he's concerned less about the glut of lobsters and more about what he sees as price-gouging by dealers.

"I just can't see how there isn't some kind of price-fixing going on," he said. "We're hurting here."

Dealers, however, say they aren't going to pay more than the catch is worth and that the price is driven by the market, not a secret conspiracy.

The more lobstermen stay off the water, the quicker the prices will rebound, but lobstermen are notoriously independent, so Brunell is not sure if that will happen.

Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher released a statement recently warning against any criminal behavior during this unsettled time.

"We have heard that fishermen are seeking to impose a de facto shutdown of the fishery and coercing others into complying by threatening to cut off their gear," Keliher said in his release. "Any such actions will be met with targeted and swift enforcement."

The situation was similar in the mid-1950s, when lobstermen were targeted in a price-fixing investigation.

Maine Lobstermen's Association and its president were found guilty and given suspended fines for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits collusion in efforts to control market prices.

Some want the state to intervene so lobstermen aren't put in such a tenuous position.

In the long term, Keliher hopes to foster better dialogue among dealers and harvesters and also do a better job marketing Maine lobsters to the world, he said. The state's Lobster Advisory Council has been meeting regularly to talk about ways to increase demand, but nothing has been decided.

In the short term, Keliher said, there's nothing Marine Resources can do.

"My authority is to conserve the resource, not to impact markets," he said.

FEWER BOATS GOING OUT

Harbor watchers up and down the coast have reported fewer lobster boats going out in the past several days.

But if there is a shutdown, it's a quiet shutdown.

"We gotta be quiet," said Willis Spear, a lobsterman from Yarmouth. "The government is looking for scapegoats. This is definitely serious."

And frustrating.

Lobsterman Scott Jordan posted this message recently on the Maine Lobstermen's Association Facebook page: "Instead of shoving our product down the throat of consumers, we need an effective trap limit that will decrease supply, increase price, decrease demand for the bait resource, increase trap yield and consequently productivity, conserve both the lobster and bait resource, and pacify whale-huggers by putting whales less at risk for entanglement."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

William Ray holds a pair of soft-shell lobsters at Free Range Fish & Lobster market in Portland last week.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

A billboard shows how inexpensive lobsters are at Free Range. On average, lobstermen are getting $3.19 a pound. Soft-shell lobsters came much earlier than normal this year, driven largely by environmental factors, officials said.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

 


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