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

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There's nothing illegal about lobstermen tying up their boats. They are under no obligation to fish five days a week. It would be illegal only if they all conspired to stay off the water or to set a market price. That last happened in the 1950s and led to a consent decree, still in effect, in which lobstermen agreed not to discuss or participate in efforts to control prices.

In a competitive environment and a relatively short catching season, some cannot afford to stay ashore.

Brunell said he doesn't understand why the state cannot step in and impose a moratorium. Other fishing industries are regulated both in Maine and other coastal states. But the Maine lobster industry, which accounts for 80 percent of all domestic lobsters, has always had a Wild-West quality, with fishing territories determined by the lobstermen, in many cases passed down from generation to generation.

Could more regulation be coming?

"In these difficult economic times, we are obviously very concerned for lobstermen in the state. This season's experience only underscores the need for the state of Maine to take a hard look at how lobsters harvested in Maine move from the dock to consumers," Patrice McCarron, executive director of the lobstermen's association, said in a statement late Thursday.

'A PERFECT STORM'

The lobster glut didn't sneak up on anyone. In 1987, less than 20 million pounds of lobster were hauled. That number has generally increased ever since. In 2011, a record 104 million pounds of lobster were pulled in.

Low prices didn't arrive overnight, either. Although prices paid to fishermen peaked in value at $4.63 per pound in 2005, that has dropped considerably. Three years ago, lobstermen bemoaned the low price they were getting for their catch -- less than $3 per pound. Now, it's less than $2 per pound in some cases, but that could rise if supplies decline or more valuable hard-shells come onto the market.

This year's catch is all about timing, said Robin Alden, a fisheries expert and former Marine Resources commissioner.

"I've never seen it like this before," she said. "It's a perfect storm."

Lobsters can only be caught once. The glut of soft-shells in Maine waters came much earlier than normal, driven here largely by environmental factors, such as warmer ocean water. Those soft-shells could turn into hard-shell lobsters by later this season, and if the crustaceans are harvested then, they will be more valuable to harvesters. So, there is an incentive to stay off the water.

Still, about 70 percent of all lobsters caught off Maine are soft-shell. They typically have less meat per pound, but the meat is tender and easier to get at. Only 15 percent of caught lobsters end up in boiling water and then on consumers' plates. The rest is processed, usually in Canada. But Canada has had its own historically high harvest. They don't need any more product.

'RIDE IT OUT'

Spear, the Yarmouth lobsterman, said he's discouraged to see a once highly sought-after commodity like lobster become "nearly worthless." Many lobstermen, like Brunell, blame buyers and retailers.

Lee Kressbach, who runs Maine Lobster Direct and buys regularly from lobstermen, said many have been angry with him for not paying a higher price. Kressbach said his reply has been simple: "Bring me better lobsters."

Alden said there has been years of mistrust between lobstermen and dealers, but dealers have the upper hand. Lobstermen have a perishable product that they need to sell. Their bargaining position is weak.

Dealers have problems, too, though. There is a lot of shrinkage, or waste, especially with soft-shell lobsters, something Kressbach can attest to. He needs to buy from lobstermen to keep them happy but can't control the low quality of the catch. He said his business is breaking even at the moment, not swimming in profits.

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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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