May 9, 2010

Lobster pot left to rot? That's one man's idea

For fishermen like Jarod Bray, economic uncertainty gives rise to creative alternatives.

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Jarod Bray is asking people to pay him not to catch lobsters.

For $1,350 a year, Bray will send the customer the identification tag -- required by law -- off one of his 800 lobster traps with a pledge not to fish it. He said he reduces his carbon footprint by using less fuel, and his gear poses less risk to the endangered right whale. Farmers get paid not to grow certain crops, so why not pay lobstermen not to catch lobsters, Bray asks.

Bray, who fishes with his father, Joe, off Matinicus Island, launched his "No Impact Trap" business and website, www.ecolobstercatch.com, last fall. Although he has yet to find any takers, he said people have told him he is onto something.

"Everyone is trying to be green and eco-friendly," said Bray.

Known for creative marketing ploys, Maine's 4,330 lobster fishermen are casting about for new ways to broaden demand for the venerable crustacean. Adopt-a-trap programs, peddling right off the boat or at farmers markets and selling shares of the catch are among the recent innovations.

Lobstermen say they are just trying to cope with the uncertainty over what 2010 holds, following several years marked by soaring fuel costs, rock bottom lobster prices and, last summer, enough competition to trigger lobster wars.

"Every other week there is something challenging," said Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council.

The lobster promotion council is pushing the "new-shell lobster," also known as soft-shell lobster, as the tastier alternative to hard-shell specimens, which fetch higher prices because they are easier to ship.

"Some people are convinced it is sweeter and more tender and if you talk to chefs they love to get their hands on a nice new- shell lobster," said Somers.

Lobstermen say the only thing that saved them from total disaster last year was a record catch. In 2009, Maine lobstermen hauled in 75.5 million pounds. But the lobster was worth a lot less -- $221 million, compared with the $244 million value of the 69.8 million pounds caught in 2008. Fishermen received $2.93 per pound last year, compared with $3.50 a pound in 2008 and the peak price of $4.63 a pound in 2005.

This year, lobstermen are worried not only about the troubled economy and whether Americans have regained their appetite for the luxury shellfish, but also about the price of bait. Federal regulators have imposed a quota on herring, a favored baitfish.

Although the lobster population has been deemed relatively healthy, there is growing scientific concern over the high level of lobstering, said David Etnier, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

"There is a lot of gear in the water and a lot of fishermen that could pose a long-term threat," said Etnier.

Such talk sends shivers through an industry that prides itself on its self-imposed sustainable fishing practices. In recent years, regulators have stepped in to require costly replacements of fishing gear and to restrict the entry of new lobstermen into the fishery.

Stuart Norton, owner of Three Sons Lobster and Fish in Portland, said although business has picked up around the holidays -- he was busy with Mother's Day orders on Friday -- the days of people from out of state ordering a shipment on a whim show no signs of coming back.

Norton predicts the glut of lobsters will continue this summer, bad for the harvesters but great for consumers, with prices even better than last summer, when some retail markets were selling small soft shells for as little as $3.50 a pound.

"It is not going to be the luxury food it once was," Norton said.

Others are more optimistic. Somers said he has seen some encouraging signs. He said people who attended the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels last month and the International Seafood Show in Boston in March said they felt customers are coming back and the worst is behind them.

"Not that things are going to be wonderful," said Somers.

Long-time Yarmouth lobsterman Willis Spear said he is feeling more certain about the cost of bait, after his suppliers assured him they would have plenty on hand through August at least. He said all he can do is hope for the best.

"We are always cautiously optimistic or we would never go out," said Spear.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

 

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