Cory McDonald pulls lobster out of a trap in 2015, the second most lucrative year for Maine’s lobster fishery. Conversely, 2020 is shaping up to be one of the worst years in recent memory due to the adverse economic effects of the coronavirus. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald

SCARBOROUGH — Longtime lobstermen and lobster processors are convinced their livelihood is about to take a big hit due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The problem is really only beginning for this industry,” said Sue Clough, who, along with her husband Vincent runs Stern Seafood, a major buyer in Scarborough of lobster harvested by local fishermen.

Lobster is one of the higher-priced seafood products produced by fishermen in Scarborough and throughout Maine, but demand and prices are already plummeting, and the peak season is only just getting underway. Clough said  lobster fishing can occur year-round, but most fishermen avoid the harshest winter months. Some begin in May, but Clough said the busy season for lobster fishing started only about two weeks ago, and will last until around Christmas.

But the definition of “busy” depends on a few things, such as the arrival of tourists from Canada, and cruise ships bringing sight-seers to the area. Those tourists typically dine on lobster in local restaurants, and buy lobster from sellers like Clough. According to the Maine Office of Tourism’s most recent data, more than 36 million out-of-state tourists visited Maine in 2019.

According to Maine Revenue Services, a branch of the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, lodging revenues statewide in April 2020 were down 82% compared to April 2019 and in May the figure was down 79%, and it’s not clear when tourism from Canada or via cruise lines will resume.

Due to the pandemic, Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group, has suspended operations for its member companies in the U.S. until at least mid-September. In addition, the Canadian government is advising its citizens to avoid “non-essential travel” to the U.S. for the time being,

Dennis Violette, who has been fishing for lobster out of Scarborough for the past 40 years, said prices for lobster now are about $1.25 per pound less than at this time last year, due to the drop in demand. He and his fellow lobstermen aren’t shipping as many overseas as in previous years, and demand has dropped from processors in Canada, which are usually big customers for local fishermen like himself. If tourists stay away this fall, he said, it’s only going to get worse.

“I”m thinking there’s going to be a big glut of lobsters,” he said.

Processors aren’t buying because the processed lobster meat goes to the same customers — cruise lines, restaurants, hotels and other businesses that cater to tourists, according to Jerry Amirault, a spokesman for the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick & Nova Scotia.

“Those are all the major markets for processed lobster,” he said.

Amirault couldn’t offer specific numbers regarding the drop in demand, saying that was proprietary data, but said processors can’t buy from lobstermen until the cruise ship companies and restaurants buy from them.

“We have significant market reduction,” he said.

Monique Coombs, director of Marine Programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said the drop in demand has led to record-low prices. Statewide, prices range from $2 to $4 per pound; the industry hasn’t seen prices in the $2 range since 2008, during the Great Recession.

Lobster fishermen based in Scarborough are in for a rough couple of months, as the coronavirus pandemic is leading to a drop in demand. Courtesy / Sue Clough

Loans through the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program have offered some relief to fishermen, but like people in most industries hurt by the pandemic, Coombs said the coronavirus’ economic impacts have caused mental stress as well, something the association is promoting awareness of.

“A lot of lobstermen are anxious or depressed,” she said. “Fishermen are human beings and they deserve support.”

There is no quick fix for the problem, Coombs said, but she noted the one thing that sets fishermen in general apart is their resilience. Many will find ways to get around the problem – at least long enough to weather the difficult times.

“Fishermen ingenuity, it’s a thing,” she said. “They’ll make it work.”

One thing lobstermen should consider, Coombs said, is that their catch is one of the few seafood products fishermen can sell direct to consumers. Mark Coulston, another Scarborough-based lobster fisherman, has been selling his products direct and by mail order under the East Grand Lobster Co. for the past six years.

“I sell them right out of my house,” he said.

He said there are several seasonal visitors he sees year after year, and while many didn’t come this summer due to the pandemic, they remembered him and reached out.

“They are now ordering lobster from me to ship to them,” he said.

Clough said business isn’t nonexistent, but, like in most industries, she said, the fear lies in the unknown: how low prices will drop and how high the cost of necessities such as bait and fuel will remain.

“What we’re afraid of is what happens when the weather turns in September,” she said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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