Blaine Olsen, a lifelong lobsterman, was navigating his 30-foot boat off the coast of Stonington when his sternman, who’s also his wife, yelled above the diesel engine’s din about the pittance the local cooperative was paying harvesters.

He shot Ginny a doleful stare for a good five seconds. “Holy (expletive), man,” he said. “It costs us $600 a day to go out.” The dock price – $2.25 a pound for soft-shell lobsters – was half what it was a year ago, making it virtually impossible to earn a profit.

The novel coronavirus has barely touched the public health of this corner of rural Down East, with Hancock County reporting just 16 cases and one death as of June 30. Its economic health is another matter: The fallout from COVID-19 threatens a historically bad year for the Olsens and the rest of the state’s lobster industry.

Fear of contagion and the near-total shutdown of restaurants and cruise lines, where most consumers eat the crustaceans, have devastated demand. Infection-prevention protocols at processing plants have cut capacity, and the drop in air traffic has snarled the logistics of shipping live creatures. Hopes for a recovery anytime soon are dim because prices already typically fall in July.

Some 80 percent of American lobster, the U.S.’s most valuable marine fishery, comes from Maine. And more so than anywhere else, Maine lobster comes from the waters around Stonington. Lobstermen in this county hauled almost a third of the 101 million pounds (worth $485 million) landed statewide last year.

The Olsens have been married for 25 years and fishing together for nine. On that foggy day on the water last week, they baited 40 traps with pogy fish and pig hide and sank them onto the ocean floor. It was only their third day out for the season, providing a window into one strategy the industry has used to try to mitigate economic damage: simply don’t fish, or nearly as much, to prevent a boom in supply from causing further devaluation.

The couple typically sets all 1,000 of their combined traps by mid-May. Now it was nearing late June, the start of the prime summer season, and 800 traps still sat stacked dry in their yard.

“We’re trying to keep the lobsters off the market so the price doesn’t drop,” said Blaine, who’s got a tidy white mustache and bigger belly than he did pre-quarantine. Fishermen, though, make a living being at sea. How long can they really stay away? “All I want to do is be able to pay my (expletive) bills this year.”

In a bid to ease such anxiety, President Trump last week called on the Agriculture Department to provide subsidies akin to those it provides to soybean farmers. The move could also help his re-election prospects: Maine’s two Congressional districts can split their electoral votes and did so in 2016 between him and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

When the lobster industry suffers, the pain ripples. The Olsens won’t hire carpenters to remodel their kitchen or invest in new lobster traps. They didn’t even refresh their buoys with dayglo paint – opting to buy regular instead – because the former was too expensive. “Anything that is not a necessity will not happen,” Ginny said between drags of an American Spirit. “This year will be a bare-bones year.”

Municipal services run on lobster revenue, Ginny continued. “So if our lobster industry ceases to exist …”

“But he’s been smart this year and he took a job out on the quarry,” Blaine said. “Which I hope he stays with, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Out on the boat, the fog kept messing with Blaine’s sense of direction, and by early afternoon, they’d netted a paltry dozen lobsters out of 20 traps. It was the first haul of the season; tradition and superstition dictated it be dinner. “My mouth’s watering looking at them bastards,” Blaine said as they squirmed inside a plastic bucket.

“I eat the claws and he eats the tails,” Ginny said.

 


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