After a summer when lobster prices bottomed out at less than $4 a pound in most places, prices started rebounding during the Labor Day weekend, with most local lobster pounds now selling for nearly $5 a pound or more.

While the low lobster prices this summer were good for lobster lovers, the dropping prices drastically hurt local fishermen and processors. The glut of soft-shelled lobsters the past few months has been linked to lobsters shedding faster as a result of a milder-than-normal winter, according to some experts.

“Once they shed, they get awful hungry to try and fill out that new shell,” said Jodie Jordan, patriarch of the family-run Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

Jordan has been a fisher, dealer and retailer of lobsters for decades. “Longer than I can remember anyway,” he jokes. The early molting drove the bottom-dwellers into traps looking for food, surprising fishermen with an unexpected bounty.

“They were getting a catch we don’t normally see until this time of year,” said Jordan, adding, “I’m not a scientist, but that’s the way I see it.”

Mid-to-late August is historically the busiest time of year for lobstermen, agrees Daniel Chadbourne, the harbormaster at Camp Ellis in Saco. He said 12 to 15 full-time lobstermen who fish out of Camp Ellis were still going out every day, even with record low prices for their catch.

That, said Jordan, is the Catch-22 of the situation. He said this week’s 10- to 15-cent rise in lobster prices is due largely to many fishermen taking the long weekend off, coupled with “fairly good” demand over the holiday. Unfortunately, fisherman can’t afford to control the ratio of supply to demand in order to keep prices strong, even with full knowledge that it’s their own activity that’s helping to maintain the glut that has kept prices low.

“When the price goes down, they almost have to get out there,” said Jordan. “They can’t afford not to. Right now, the price is $2 a pound cheaper than it should be just to break even. Most everyone is just barely making enough to pay bait, fuel and help as it is, and none of that is getting any cheaper. So, not fishing really doesn’t become an option.”

With local lobster prices hovering around $3.99 a pound for most of the summer, Chadbourne said a lot of the fishermen were trying to sell their catch themselves, instead of going through a dealer, in order to get the best price possible.

“I know a lot of the local lobstermen were setting up their own pounds in order to get even that extra $1 that they can earn by selling the lobster themselves,” Chadbourne said in a recent interview.

Freeport’s Tom Bennett, 35, has been fishing for lobsters since he was 19, and he heard of fishermen getting prices as low as $2.30 to $2.50 a pound on the dock this summer.

That was a price that would not allow most of them to make a living, Bennett 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, agrees there is a simple reason for the low price this summer – too many lobsters on the market.

For a lobster to be legal, it must measure between 31?4 to 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.

“It’s supply and demand and there is an oversupply of a perishable product,” Bayer said. “Nobody really knows (why there are so many lobsters). It’s likely related to climate change. But there is no smoking gun and we don’t know what this means for the future.”

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.”

According to Jordan, that glut occurred on the mid-coast and in Eastern Maine, not in local waters. Still, he said, it created a “ripple effect.”

While Jordan does not know anyone who’s been driven out of business, he said some local fishermen have been forced to sell their boats and downsize to smaller vessels that are cheaper to run and easier to maintain. In other cases, he said, captains have gone out short a “stern man.”

“Because the stern men get paid first and the captain lives off the profits, the stern men have been making more than the captains all summer long,” said Jordan.

Bayer said the situation lobstermen faced with depressed prices 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 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 that’s not likely to happen. In a recent statement, 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 the 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 added.

Increasing the lobster meat processing capability in Maine is one possible solution to the low prices of lobster, but Tselikis doesn’t believe that’s the sole answer to the problem.

“Everyone keeps on talking about processing, and let’s do more processing,” she said. “But processing is not a silver bullet for this industry. Because you still have to sell the product once you’ve processed it. Processing just increases the shelf life and makes the product into a usable form so it can more easily go into restaurants, food service or retail.”

To that end, Tselikis said, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is looking to enhance the promotion and marketing of the Maine lobster in order to create new markets and increase demand both in the U.S. and around the world in hopes of driving prices up.

Even before that happens, there appear to be some glints of hope on the horizon.

Jim Hartley, who opened Pine Tree Seafood & Produce in Scarborough last week, began the process of launching the business more than a year ago, before anyone suspected lobster prices would become a perennial headline.

“I’m sure we can make a go of it,” he said of his self-described mom-and-pop shop. “Our prices fluctuate based on what we buy, but we only try to make $1 a pound over what we pay.”

Last week, going into a slight dip in supply with the approach of Labor Day holiday, that meant $4.99-$6.99 for soft shells and $6.99-$8.99 for hard shells, steamed and ready to eat for no extra charge.

“On the retail side, the price drop is probably beneficial,” he said. “The price is lower, so the consumer is more likely to make purchases. Certainly, the fishermen at Pine Point, where we get our stock, seem real happy to have another sales outlet.”

Jordan agrees that with fishermen powerless to stop fishing or otherwise try to manipulate the market, the only way to get out of this season safely is more buyers.

“It’s a mystery who sets the price, where it gets going, who decides,” he said. “We’ve talked about that for years. But what we need people to know right now is that there’s still plenty of good-eating lobster out there. Just because the tourists have all gone home doesn’t mean you have to stop, too. In fact, we’d kind of appreciate it if you wouldn’t.”

Reporter Kate Irish Collins contributed to this story.

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