With many restaurants shuttered, and typical export pipelines closed, demand for lobster and other Maine seafood is way down, leaving Maine’s $674 million-a-year commercial fishing industry scrambling to find new markets and short-term economic relief to survive the pandemic.

“It appears that we have a long road ahead,” Patrice McCarron, the director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said in the group’s latest newsletter. “While the timeline for the coronavirus and its corresponding economic disaster are unknown, we must prepare for long-term impacts.”

The pandemic has forced the closure of almost one out of three restaurants, according to the latest reports. The restaurant industry, along with food service, consumes about 80 percent of U.S. seafood. It’s worse for lobster, a luxury item, which counts casinos and cruise ships among its biggest customers.

This comes on the heels of the $485 million-a-year Maine lobster industry’s struggle to replace the market it lost in the trade war with China, which had accounted for 1 out of every 3 pounds of lobsters exported overseas, and Canada’s sweet trade deal with the European Union.

The pandemic is forcing the industry to go after the market that is available right now, even in quarantine – home cooks. The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative is shifting its focus to drive demand among those who can still buy lobster through retail outlets like grocery stores, seafood markets and direct delivery.

“Our goal is to make Maine lobster more approachable for the home cook,” said Marianne LaCroix, who is the collaborative’s director. “We’re developing recipes and how-to content to help make people comfortable buying and preparing Maine lobster in all its forms.”

This is a quiet time for most Maine lobstermen, who don’t usually start to set their traps until next month, and even then, it’s usually more about laying claim to specific fishing turf than about the catch. Most don’t land much until July, depending on weather and when the lobsters shed their shells.

But Maine has a growing number of lobstermen – about one in four – who harvest hard-shell lobsters offshore, year round. Winter fishing is hard, but it can be profitable, with March and April yielding the highest per-pound prices of the year at $7.79 and $7.28, respectively, according to five-year state data.

The virus has sent prices at the boat tumbling, with lobster now as low as $2.60 a pound in some Maine ports.

“Any scenario in which there is no market for your catch is scary,” McCarron said. “Based on the natural ebb and flow of our industry, we have some time to plan before the real hurt of this economic crisis engulfs us. … Even if the season is delayed, our fleet is skilled, efficient and capable of making up those landings.”

Some lobstermen are finding it more profitable, albeit more time consuming, to sell small volumes of hard-shell lobsters direct to consumers out of the back of their truck, sometimes for as much as $12 a pound, or through one of a growing number of online “find-a-fisherman” platforms popping up.

While smaller, Maine still has a ground fishing fleet, too, that normally would be fishing for hake, pollock, redfish and haddock right now, as well as a scallop fishery that normally makes the bulk of its real money in March, said Ben Martens, director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

Kristan Porter of Cutler is one of many Maine lobstermen who scallop during the winter to pay bills and to avoid living off business credit lines when the lobsters are slow. Scallop prices have been a little lower than normal, but good enough for him to keep going, even if it means chasing them as far as Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The Maine elver fishery has been hit especially hard. Last year, fishermen were getting $2,000 a pound for the small glass eel so valued by the Asian sushi market, but this year, there is no market, pushing prices for what they used to call wriggling gold down to $500 a pound.

A lobsterman might opt to stay home when the price is too low, but ground fishermen who bought a share of a federally-issued fishing quota may feel like they have to use up what they purchased or risk losing it, Martens said. On the other hand, fishing when there is little demand risks driving prices down further.

If the pandemic persists through the summer, what will the industry’s workers do? Most are independent contractors, still ineligible for unemployment right now, and many got shut out of the first round of the $2 billion federal stimulus program, unaware they were eligible for it until after the money ran out.

The first round of funding also included $300 million set aside to assist the U.S. seafood industry, but the federal agency in charge of distributing it, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, has not yet issued any federal guidelines on who is eligible, much less any of the funding.

Industry advocates like Martens are determined to prepare the industry for the next round. On Thursday, as the U.S. House was approving a new round of federal COVID-19 stimulus, the fisherman’s association held an online webinar to teach fishermen how, and when, to apply for federal programs, as well as unemployment.

The group has recruited volunteer business counselors to help walk fishermen through applying for one of the $10,000 forgivable loans available under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or a Paycheck Protection Program loan of up to 2.5 times what the average fisherman pays him or herself.

“The first round of funding was gone before most fishermen even knew it was out there,” Martens said. “It was confusing. A lot of the banks weren’t offering the program. Someone applied before the self-employed could apply, got turned down and word on the docks, on the marine radio, was fishermen weren’t eligible.”

Many in Maine’s most valuable fishery – its $485 million-a-year lobster industry – thought they had to sit it out because they don’t usually fish in March or April, Martens said. But the programs use what applicants claim on their annual taxes, divided by 12, to achieve monthly income estimates.

Maine is about to open its unemployment program to sole proprietors and independent contractors, the two categories that most boat captains and their crew fall into, Martens said. This will allow those who don’t apply for a forgivable loan to claim up to $1,045 a week during the hardest-hit weeks of lost wages in April.

John Drouin, a lobster boat captain out of Cutler, was one of the lucky few who got his Paycheck Protection Program application in before the first $350 billion ran out. He applied through his bank, Machias Savings, on the first day, April 3, but was turned away. He applied again, successfully, on April 10.

“The (U.S. Small Business Association) didn’t seem to have very good guidance for them, so we learned as we went along,” he said. “I finally did receive funds on Monday, after the (bank) representative worked on the application that weekend.”

He is still awaiting word on his $10,000 forgivable loan from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, but even if he were to land that, too, Drouin said he doesn’t think it will be enough to offset the pandemic-related business losses he will have to endure this year.

“However this all ends, the lobster industry won’t fare well for this year,” Drouin said. “That’s my opinion.”

Most fishermen who applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan through Machias Savings Bank were approved, according to Scott Peasley, who manages over 200 fishing accounts for the Cutler branch. He is worried, however, that not enough of them applied.

“Some fishermen haven’t woken up to the fact that this is going to be bad,” Peasley said. “A lot of younger guys, they’ve never seen a bad year of lobstering. To them, there’ll always be a buyer, somebody willing to pay a good price. I sure hope that they are right, for all our sakes.”

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