January 15, 2013

Maine lobstermen seek strategy to avert another price collapse

With 2012's wholesale prices being the lowest in years, lobstermen look to the state for solutions.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

YARMOUTH — Last year was a rough year for lobstering and the industry has a lot to say about it.

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Lobsters are unloaded from a fishing boat Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, in Portland, Maine. With 2012's wholesale prices being the lowest in years, lobstermen are looking to the state for solutions. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Lobster Landings
Maine’s lobster catch for 2012 hit a record 123 million pounds. Explore landings by county from 2008 to 2012 by clicking below.

As part of a month-long series of meetings across the state's coastal towns, the Division of Marine Resources hosted a standing-room-only crowd on Monday to hear ideas and feedback on a range of issues from marketing to potential changes in the licensing system to how to handle market crashes.

In 2012, the industry caught a record 123 million pounds of lobster in Maine's waters, up 18 percent from a year ago. The value of the catch, however, fell to $331 million, down $3.7 million.

The year was marked by a glut in the market, the lowest wholesale price in a generation and protests against Canadian processors who imported lower-priced Maine lobster.

"We don't know if it will happen again. Do we need to do something? I hear up and down the coast that we need to do something but we don't know what," said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

Keliher said the feedback has varied in different parts of the state. In Yarmouth, for example, there was minimal support for the idea of limiting fishing to three days a week during times of market gluts. Fewer lobsters were caught in southern Maine last year than along the midcoast.

"We didn't cause the glut. To make a decision to impact everyone in this room who didn't cause the problem doesn't make sense," said state Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, a commercial lobsterman who fishes the maximum of 800 traps. "In the midcoast, they were mad we didn't tie up, but we can find a market for every lobster we catch."

Although an organized tie-up or break in fishing is against the law, Keliher joked that some in the industry took a "vacation" when market prices hit their lowest point during mid-June through mid-July.

The Division of Marine Resources will take comments throughout the month and use them to help draft proposed legislation. It would be a governor's bill that could be submitted at any time during the session, Keliher said.

"Doing something stupid is worse than doing nothing. Think long and hard before you make any changes," said Mike Robinson, who fishes 800 traps off Chebeague Island.

Tim Harkins, president of Rocky Coast Lobster Co. in Arrowsic, said he thought it was admirable that the state was holding meetings with the lobster industry to get feedback, but he was concerned that the meetings covered too broad a spectrum of topics.

"They are trying to cover a lot of territory and these are very complicated issues," he said.

In other topics, Keliher asked for a show of hands of those interested in pursuing some form of marketing effort to brand Maine lobster and help increase the wholesale price through heavier demand.

The vast majority of the more than 100 people present supported the concept of marketing, but there was no agreement in how a marketing group would be formed, funded or overseen.

The other key topic under discussion was a new licensing system that would help weed out fisherman who aren't active to reduce the wait time to get a license.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com

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