Cory McDonald pulls lobsters out of a trap while fishing off the coast of Stonington in 2015. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine’s lobster industry weathered the coronavirus pandemic better than expected, with the value of the 2020 landings decreasing only 17 percent from the previous year despite the closure of many of its traditional markets such as restaurants and cruise ships.

The overall haul was valued at almost $406 million, a decrease from 2019’s $491 million but still only the seventh time in the history of the fishery that the landed value exceeded $400 million, according to figures released Wednesday by the state Department of Marine Resources.

Maine fishermen hauled 96.6 million pounds of lobster in 2020, a 5 percent decrease from the 101 million pounds in 2019 and the first time in almost a decade that landings fell below 100 million pounds.

Dustin Delano, a lobsterman in Friendship and a vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, attributes the drop to a decrease in effort, not in supply.

“We decreased effort significantly from March to July, from when we heard about the virus,” he said, “We were skeptical, so guys took their time setting their gear out for summer.”

Delano said he also took a “wait and see” approach, not setting his traps until the beginning of August, when the coronavirus pandemic seemed to be smoothing out.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said in a statement that the lobster industry “faced tremendous uncertainty in 2020.”

“I’m extremely proud of the commitment by harvesters and dealers to adapt to change and to sustain the value of this critically important industry,” he said.

The average price per pound in 2020 was $4.20, down from $4.82 the year before. However, 2019’s figures, helped along by a late start to the season and less lobster available for sale, were the highest since Maine began tracking lobster hauls in 1880.

The $4.20 per pound, substantially higher than the average $3.76 of the last decade, was hard-won.

The lobster industry was hit hard last March when the pandemic forced the closure of traditional markets, such as restaurants and cruise ships. Canceled flights and economic shutdowns across the world tanked the international market as well.

As recently as November, projections called for a nearly 25 percent decrease in overall value.

But dealers and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative quickly pivoted, targeting grocery stores and home consumers, pushing sales back up.

Prices were pretty “sketchy” early on, with some fishermen getting only $2 to $3 per pound at the docks.

“With the poor price, people didn’t go as hard,” said Steve Train, a lobsterman from Long Island. “We’re not mathematicians, but we do know that if people aren’t buying them we don’t want to catch them.”

The marketing pivot to the home buyer helped move product and kept lobstermen from having a ton of leftover inventory, but it couldn’t make up for the loss of the food service and hospitality industries, Train said.

“The price was very low,” he said. “We sold an awful lot of lobsters for a lot less than they were worth because the restaurant industry was pretty much nil.”

It’s hard to know what will happen this year.

“This is the time of year we don’t catch much. We won’t know until the end of May, early July when we see the shed,” he said. “I hope we see a price back somewhere where it should be. It costs a lot of money just to leave the dock.”

But Delano is optimistic.

“We hear things about people being vaccinated, the country is starting to open up, the demand is up right now,” he said. “We typically see a peak price in March before the Canadian season starts and most of the lobster dealers are paying $10 per pound on the truck. It gives us hope.”

That said, they’re not expecting entirely smooth sailing from here on out. As the industry recovers from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, fishermen also are bracing for an onslaught of changes expected from right whale regulations and offshore wind projects.

“I think the industry has some serious challenges coming down the line, but for the near future outlook, things are looking all right,” Delano said. “We’ll continue like would normally and do our best to work on these things that are going to be coming up.”

While it’s certainly the largest, lobster isn’t the only player in Maine’s fishing game. The state’s entire seafood industry netted $517 million, the ninth-highest on record.

Softshell clammers benefited from a 6-cent-per-proud increase in value in 2020, and despite landing 1.2 million fewer pounds than the year before, softshell clams moved up as the state’s second most valuable fishery. Landings were valued at $15.6 million.

The third most valuable species was scallops, which netted $6.7 million for 5.4 million live pounds and 658,678 meat pounds, a 32 percent increase from 2019.

Bloodworms and menhaden, both used as bait, followed as fourth and fifth most valuable, earning $6.6 million for 384,069 pounds and $6.3 million for 24.3 million pounds, respectively.

Oysters fell from fourth most valuable in 2019 to sixth in 2020, bringing in $5.9 million for 2.2 million pounds — the lowest in value and landings since 2016.

Elvers were the state’s second most valuable fishery in 2019, with 9,750 pounds in landings valued at $20.1 million. The overall catch remained roughly the same at 9,652 pounds in 2020, but the value of the fish plummeted, bringing in just $5 million.


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