ROCKPORT — Despite a cold, late spring that took a toll on the state lobster catch in 2019, driving landings down 17 percent, record-high prices kept the catch’s overall value steady from the previous year.

Maine fishermen hauled 100.7 million pounds of lobster in 2019, according to figures released Friday by the state Department of Marine Resources at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. That was the smallest catch since 2010, but it was the ninth year in a row that Maine broke the 100-million-pound mark.

Despite the slow start, Maine fishermen eked out a good year. A 20 percent increase in the per-pound boat price of lobster meant the overall value of Maine’s haul remained pretty stable, coming in at $485.4 million, despite the double-digit decrease in 2019 total landings.

Kristan Porter’s end-of-the-year bottom line looked about the same as it did in 2018. The lobsterman from Cutler, who is president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, hauled less lobster, but he sold that smaller catch for a higher price, embodying the association’s motto, “Fish smarter, not harder.”

“We don’t fish for pounds, we fish for dollars,” Porter said. “Yeah, we got started late, and that was scary, but most guys finished strong. Overall, landings were down, but we’re still leaps and bounds ahead of our historical average. So I don’t think there is cause for alarm, at least not yet.”

The late start to lobster fishing in Maine meant less lobster available for sale, which undoubtedly played a role in driving up the per-pound boat price of lobster by 20 percent. The average per-pound price in 2019 was a whopping $4.82, the highest since Maine began tracking lobster hauls in 1880.


Fishermen, however, are watching the landings decline closely as they make decisions about the future of their business, Porter said. He remembers Fishermen’s Forum 2011, when fishermen rejoiced to learn the industry had broke the 100-million-pound mark. This year, they’re asking if the boom is over.

“Nobody expects we are going to stay at 130 million pounds forever,” Porter said. “But a bigger supply did not mean higher prices, not right away, and that’s what matters for fishermen. It took awhile to create the demand for that much lobster, but we did, and it’s paying off for us now.”

Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher agreed with Porter’s take on the 2019 season. The lower landings this year had more to do with the weather, which caused a late molt, than it did with population decline or warming waters, but both the industry and the state are watching those issues closely.

“Even with a slow start last year, Maine’s lobster industry ended the year strong, with landings picking up significantly in the last few months,” Keliher said. “Fishermen held off until the shed happened, so fishing was slow early but picked up later in the year.”

It is that molt, when lobsters shed their hard, older shells to grow bigger new ones, that triggers the start of Maine’s summer fishery. That used to happen in early July, around Independence Day, but in recent years, warm ocean temperatures have meant earlier molts. Last year, however, the molt was late.

The 17 percent drop in year-end landings was a much better finish to 2019 than state regulators had feared back in September, when year-to-date landings were 40 percent behind where they were at the same time in 2018. By January, however, regulators were confident of yet another 100-million-pound year.


In Maine, where the lobster industry and its supply chain pumps an estimated $1.5 billion a year into the state economy, the timing of the molt rises above a mere scientific observation and turns into an economic indicator that is discussed and documented all along the state’s 3,500-mile coast.

While scientists and lobstermen debate the long-term future of the fishery, and whether it will go bust in five years as some scientists predict, fishermen can take heart in high boat prices despite the loss of the big China market as a result of the U.S.-China trade war.

At heart, Maine fishermen are businessmen, said Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron. They have learned to invest in the sustainability of the resource that supports them and the industry that employs them, their relatives, friends and neighbors, especially in bolstering the strength of the Maine lobster brand.

“These guys don’t fish just for the sake of fishing,” McCarron said. “They fish when the resource is there, when they can make the most of their bait, fuel and crew, and when they can maximize their profit. This year, that meant a late start, but a strong finish. Our guys worked it beautifully this year.”

There are so many things about lobstering that individual fishermen, and even regulatory agencies, can’t control, such as trade deals or weather, McCarron said. But the fleet and Maine worked hard to control what variables it could, like stewardship and marketing, and it paid off in 2019, she said.

Lobster drove the value of Maine’s overall commercial marine landings to $673.9 million in 2019, a $26 million increase over 2018 and the second highest valued landings of all time. Lobster has been the most valuable marine fishery in the U.S. since 2015, according to National Marine Fisheries Service.


But in Maine, it’s not all about lobster. With landings valued at $20.1 million, the state’s second most valuable fishery in 2019 was elvers. Fetching more than $2,000 per pound, the young eels were by far the most valuable catch on a per-pound basis, according to state figures.

Soft-shell clammers fared better in 2019 than the year before, landing 623,000 more pounds than in 2018 and netting a 30 percent higher price, jumping from $1.80 per pound in 2018 to $2.34 per pound in 2018. This made soft-shell clams Maine’s third most valuable species.

The fourth most valuable species was oysters, which netted $7.6 million for 3.2 million pounds, followed by blood worms, a bait used to fish for striped bass that was valued at $6.3 million, and sea urchins, worth about $5.8 million in 2019, according to state data.

“Maine’s fishing and aquaculture industries have shown what hard work, and a commitment to sustainable, responsible harvesting and cultivation practices can accomplish,” Keliher said. “But Maine continues to face challenges associated with climate change, federal whale regulations and working waterfront access.”

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