July 5, 2013

Maine lobstermen relieved at routine pace of harvest

After last year's glut sank prices, they call this season's normalcy 'a good thing.'

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Lobster season appears to be back to normal this year. And normal is good.

click image to enlarge

The lobster industry is relieved to see a return to routine lobster harvesting after last year's glut in the market produced the lowest wholesale prices in a generation.

2012 file photo/The Associated Press

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From lobstermen to dealers to processors, the industry is relieved to see a return to routine lobster harvesting after last year, when a glut in the market produced the lowest wholesale prices in a generation and triggered protests against Canadian processors who imported lower-priced Maine lobster.

"During the last three or four days, volume has been picking up. It's more typical of a regular season," said Kyle Murdock, president and chief executive of processor Sea Hag Seafood Inc. in Tenants Harbor. "Last year was very early. It's a good thing that it's more normal this year. Last year's glut definitely put us in a hairy position."

Last year, Maine lobstermen hauled a record 123 million pounds of lobster, up 18 percent from the year before. The total value of the catch, however, dropped 1.1 percent to $331 million. The average price per pound was $2.69, down from $3.19 a pound in 2011, according to the state's Department of Marine Resources.

Shedders, or softshell lobster, have begun appearing in southern Maine and the midcoast regions and are expected to appear Down East in the coming weeks, lobstermen and dealers said.

John Ready, who co-owns Ready Seafood in Portland, said that having shedders appear more slowly along different parts of the coast -- rather than all at once throughout the entire coast -- helps the industry more efficiently absorb the harvest over time instead of having to handle it all at once, which results in a crash in prices.

"Last year, everyone got them at the same time and it buried the entire market over the same time. There was oversupply," Ready said.

This year, it appears the harvest is behaving more traditionally, slowly creeping up the coast.

"Lobsters have already showed up in the southern part of the state and they're in the midcoast now. Down East will see them in the next week or two," Ready said.

There's plenty of supply to handle retailers and restaurants for the busy July Fourth holiday weekend, Ready said. What's lacking is the panic of lobstermen trying to dump lobsters on processors before they go bad.

"It's nothing like last year. The season is starting later than last year," said David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "Shedders have not started in volume yet."

Kerin Resch, owner of dealer and processor Eastern Traders in Nobleboro, said midcoast areas such as Muscongus Bay and the Damariscotta River have been producing well, while Down East locations in Hancock and Washington Country are "virtually dry."

"It is really the very beginning of shedders. Within a week or two, 75 percent of the state will be producing a peak rates," Resch said.

Resch said softshell wholesale prices are currently hovering between the "high two dollars to the low three dollars" per pound. Prices for hardshell lobsters are priced at least $2 per pound higher, other dealers said.

Biologists are at a loss to explain why last year's season behaved the way it did, or how this year's harvest will turn out.

"The molt started earlier last year. This year is more normal. It's hard to tell how the season will play out. We really have to see how things go through the end of the season before we fully understand why things are happening differently this year," said Robert Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. "It could be the cool spring we had. But that's strictly a guess."

On Tuesday, scientists gathered in Portland with members of the industry to raise awareness about the effect climate change has had on the U.S. lobster harvest. Lobsters have abandoned warmer waters as far south as Long Island Sound and moved north. That has benefitted fisherman in the Gulf of Maine, but over time, rising water temperatures and increased acidification could hurt Maine's most lucrative fishery, environmental advocates and marine scientists said.

Tuesday's event was part of a $2 million marketing campaign to open untapped global markets for Maine lobsters.

Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, will be holding four meetings in July to seek the industry's input about the season so far and to provide an update regarding the Canadian lobster season, which ended last week.

The first meeting will be held Tuesday in Rockland, followed by meetings in Machias, Ellsworth and Scarborough, according to the DMR website.

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

jhall@pressherald.com

 

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