DEER ISLE, Maine — Deer Isle lobsterman LeRoy Bridges lost two traps recently.
When he figured out how much it would cost to replace them, he realized how bad the state’s lobster price crisis has become.
“I’d have to catch 140 pounds of lobster to replace two pair of traps,” he told a group of fellow lobstermen and community members Tuesday night. “It no longer — at $2.25 [a pound] — is feasible to go lobstering.”
The decline in the price lobstermen get for their lobster — which has dropped almost 50 percent since the beginning of the month — has fishermen worried about making their payments, making a living and ultimately about the future of the lobster industry.
The lobstermen and community members had gathered at the REACH Performing Arts Center in Deer Isle to discuss the pricing crisis and possible ways to ease its impact. The meeting was sponsored by Penobscot East Resource Center and the town of Stonington.
“Something needs to be done to help this community,” one woman said, “and it needs to be done quickly.”
The boat price of lobster hovered near the $4 mark throughout much of the summer, according to some fishermen, but in recent weeks it has dropped rapidly to $2.50 and then to $2.25. There are reports that in some areas lobstermen are getting just $2 a pound.
Fishermen say they can’t afford to fish with the price of lobster at around $2 a pound.
“Four dollars is the break-even point,” said Dick Bridges of Deer Isle. “At $4, you might even make a little money.”
There’s been some discussion of limiting the lobster catch in order to stave off a full-fledged market glut. Many fishermen can’t afford not to fish, however, and continue, hoping to sell lobster where they can.
Others think it may be time to pull their traps and tie up their boats until things improve.
“I’ve got to get my traps out of the water,” said local fisherman Clayton Wheelden. “There’s no point in catching fish if you can’t sell them.”
Faced with high fuel and bait prices, fishermen were able to keep their heads above water with the price at $4 a pound, but the international financial crisis has sent shock waves that were felt in a fault line running from Iceland through Maritime Canada to coastal Maine.
The crisis in Maine is tied directly to the collapse of Icelandic banks which were key lenders to processors in Canada, according to Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. Without ready credit from those banks, Canadian processors don’t have the cash to purchase lobster from Maine, Somers said.
The credit crunch hit Canada early in October, Maine’s peak season for lobster production and value, according to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
October is the time when fishermen make the bulk of the money they need to see them through the winter months. They’re worried about what will happen if things don’t turn around.
“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Somer said. “And this is not going away right away.”
On average annually, between 45 percent and 50 percent of Maine lobster is sent to processors in Canada. At this time of year, however, 70 percent of the catch usually goes to Canada, but processors there are not buying.
According to the MLA, there are a number of reasons for that. The international credit problem is one. There also are reports that some processors already have inventory on hand and that others are operating at less than full capacity so they don’t create more supply than they can sell.
The MLA also reported that some large restaurant chains, such as Red Lobster and Outback, have seen losses as fewer people eat out regularly. Demand also has softened on cruise ships and at casinos due to the poor economic conditions.
Fishermen also worry that the Canadian lobster season has not yet begun. They are concerned that when Canadian fishermen begin landing lobsters next month, the increased supply could further depress prices.