WESTBROOK – You don’t have to go very far to see how much the price of lobster has dropped.

Consumers can pick up lobsters at seafood markets for less than $4 a pound – at some places, a lot less. While that may seem good on its face, the fact is that the dropping prices, which have been tied to a glut of soft-shelled lobsters shedding faster as a result of a milder-than-normal winter, are drastically hurting local fishermen and local processors.

In Westbrook, the impact depends on whom you talk to.

“The cheap lobster’s the best thing that’s ever happened to the state of Maine,” said Joe Scola, who has been in the lobster business since the 1960s, working Holyoke Wharf in Portland as a buyer for 25 years.

Now, he’s selling the crustaceans retail at Nancy’s Little Fish Market on Main Street in Westbrook. He owns that store, and another in Florida, and deals in bulk directly with fisherman farther up the coast.

Scola said he is selling big volume at only $2.99 a pound. Because of that volume, he said, he’s already made double the profits that he usually makes by this time of year.

“More people are cooking lobster that couldn’t afford it last year,” he said.

And the number of fishermen who are calling him looking for businesses has gone up, too.

“I’m getting phone calls up and down the state,” he said. “I’ve never gotten so many phone calls in all my life.”

Some of the fishermen, he said, are trying to sweeten the deal, offering free delivery to his door, an unthinkable service during a normal season.

But this season isn’t normal. Greg Whitton is a lobster fisherman who owns the Ancient Mariner, a retail business on Conant Street near the Westbrook-Gorham line. His experience differs from Scola’s.

“It’s very dry around here,” he said.

That means he’s doing the same – or more – work lobstering, but with the market price dropping, he’s forced to lower his prices, which makes it harder to make a living.

“It ruins the market for all of us,” he said.

Whitton has lowered his prices to $3.49 a pound, but he can’t go any lower, and even that’s a 50-cent drop from what he was expecting to charge this year. His bait, fuel and crew costs haven’t changed – still about $2,000 a week.

“That 50 cents is going to add up in the summer, and there’s no need of it,” he said.

Robert Bayer, the executive director of the Lobster Institute, a U.S. and Canadian organization based at the University of Maine that works to both sustain the lobster population and help keep the lobster fishery viable, said there is a simple reason for the low price – too many lobsters on the market.

“It’s supply and demand and there is an oversupply of a perishable product,” Bayer said.

But it is harder to explain the glut of lobsters on the market.

“Nobody really knows (why there are so many lobsters),” he said. “It’s likely related to climate change. But there is no smoking gun and we don’t know what this means for the future. “I don’t know what can be done. You don’t know if it’s going to happen next year. This may be a one-time thing or this may be the new normal. You just don’t know.”

Bayer said the annual lobster shed, where the crustaceans shed their shells and grow into legal size, is staggered, generally starting in Massachusetts and working its way up the coast to Maine. But this year, the lobsters were on a different pattern, shedding much earlier.

“This year, it seems like it’s happened all at once,” he said, “and we just don’t know what is going to happen next year.”

For a lobster to be legal, it must measure between 31?4 and 5 inches from the eye socket to the base of the tail, Bayer said, adding that the larger lobsters are vital to sustaining the lobster population. “They are a very important breeding lobster,” he said. “Those big lobsters produce a huge number of eggs.”

Bayer said the situation with depressed prices facing local lobstermen this season is unprecedented.

“There’s never been anything like this, ever,” he said. “It’s creating hardship, with low (lobster) prices, your fuel price isn’t changing and your bait price isn’t changing, (fishermen) may have boat payments. It’s pretty tough.”

“Everybody throughout the supply chain is definitely having a hard season,” agreed Annie Tselikis, the education coordinator of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “It’s definitely going to be a tough year across the board for the entire industry.”

Hauling fewer traps could be one possible solution to the glut. Bayer also said a closure of the lobster fishery, perhaps for as little as two weeks, similar to what is done in Canada, could help the situation.

But even on a temporary basis, that likely is not going to happen. In a statement last month, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said closing the fishery isn’t an option.

“The department will not be closing the lobster fishery,” Keliher said. “Based on the concerns that have been raised by the industry, I have reviewed our statutory authorities and they do not allow us to shut down the fishery for economic reasons.

”The governor and the Department of Marine Resources share industry’s concerns regarding the low price of lobster due to excessive supply, and we are committed to seeking ways to prevent this scenario in the future through appropriate marketing and management strategies,” Keliher continued. “I have spoken to many industry members about this issue and will continue to solicit ideas going forward.”

The complaints about the falling price of lobster aren’t limited to Maine. Fishermen in Canada have been complaining about the low prices, and have even turned to blockading some eastern Canadian lobster processing plants to stop the delivery of lobster crossing the border from Maine.

Linda Bean, the owner of Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster, a company that has restaurants in Freeport, the Portland Jetport, Port Clyde and Delray Beach, Fla., as well as a lobster processing plant in Rockland that ships lobster meat for retail sale around the country, said that with only three processing plants in the state, Maine has a hard time competing with Canada. Maine processors are not on a level playing field.

“(The Canadian government) will help pay for processing equipment,” Bean said.

The fact that Canadian fishermen are protesting the importation of Maine lobster shows that this is a widespread problem, she said.

“Nobody’s happy with these low prices,” said Bean.

Bean said her plant in Rockland processes about 2 million pounds of lobster a year in Maine, all obtained from local Maine fishermen.

“We don’t ship to (meat) Canada (for processing) or buy Canadian lobsters to mix with ours in any way,” she said.

But while it would seem that lower prices for wholesale lobster would help boost profits at her processing plant, Bean said that simply isn’t the case.

“The fact that we’re buying twice as much at half the price doesn’t really change anything,” she said. “In fact, it puts more of a burden on our processing plant to hire workers to take care of it. So it’s putting us in a bind, as well. It’s a matter of supply and demand and there’s way more supply than demand.”

Tselikis said the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is looking to enhance the promotion and marketing of the Maine lobster brand with an eye on creating new markets for the product and increase demand for Maine lobster both in the U.S. and around the world, in hopes of driving prices up.

“There’s a lot of opportunity abroad,” she said. “But there’s a lot of opportunity in this country, as well.”

In Westbrook, Whitton said he would probably still make it this year, but it would be a lot harder than it needs to be, and he is just baffled at how other fishermen can afford to cut their prices so drastically.

“I don’t understand how they’re doing it,” he said.

Staff writer Sean Murphy contributed to this report.

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