Maine lobster is known as a delicacy that stirs the taste buds of culinary enthusiasts across the globe, but there was one thing about lobster that state and industry officials did not like last year: the price.
Fishermen especially did not like it. Many of their expenses such as bait and fuel had increased dramatically, but the price of their catch last fall fell to less than $2.50 a pound, a level they had not seen since the 1990s. Maine’s 6,700 licensed commercial lobstermen caught more than $280 million worth of the crustacean in 2007, but by last fall their costs had shot up and the per-pound price was close to half of what it had been the year before.
The boat price of lobster in Maine since has gone back up above $4, but it is still several dollars below what prices typically spike to in the winter, when the supply drops. In an effort to help give the industry a more significant and lasting boost, Gov. John Baldacci last October created a task force to look into the industry’s long-term economic viability.
The task force is scheduled to hold a public meeting from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday at Merrill Auditorium in Portland City Hall. Another public meeting has been scheduled for the same hours in Ellsworth on March 10, but a location for that meeting has not yet been determined, according to Deirdre Gilbert of the state Department of Marine Resources.
The task force is expected to have a list of recommendations prepared for Baldacci by mid-April, before the spring lobster season picks up.
Ron Philips, president of Coastal Enterprise Inc. and chairman of the task force, said Tuesday in a voice mail message that the group hopes to hear from fishermen, dealers and processors at Thursday’s meeting.
“I think our process is an effort to achieve some consensus within the industry on how to do even better with this wonderful brand of Maine lobster and [to] keep that brand robust throughout the marketing chain both here in America as well as abroad,” Philips said.
Maine Lobstermen’s Association Vice President Jack Merrill said Tuesday that, though the task force has no fishermen or dealers on it, he is supportive of what it is trying to do. With many lobstermen facing more increased costs from impending federal rope regulations, the outlook for the 2009 lobster season is not rosy, he said, and something constructive needs to be done.
“The idea is to get an outside, independent business perspective [on the lobster industry],” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Bob Bayer, executive director of University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said Tuesday that the price of lobster in Maine seems to follow the stock market closely. As Wall Street loses ground, so does the price of lobster, he said.
Lately, the price of lobster seems to have increased from last fall’s low, according to Bayer. Fishermen who have continued setting their traps this winter in general have been getting between $4.50 and $5 a pound, he said.
Bayer, who is not on the task force, said Wall Street may be out of the task force’s reach but that there may be things that can be done in Maine to boost the state’s lobster industry.
Rather than focusing on bulk sales of live lobsters, most of which go to Canada for processing, Maine businesses could develop a way to package processed lobster so it is easier to prepare and eat. Lobster tails and claws could be packaged and sold with sauce, he said, and instead of throwing the rest of the lobster away it might be used in other products. Blue Seal Feeds has come out with a dog biscuit flavored with lobster meal.
“It’s not the guy who grows the wheat, it’s the guy who bakes the bread” who puts the most value in the final product, Bayer said. “When you do value-added, it’s good for everybody.”
Bayer cautioned that simply processing more lobster in Maine might not be the best option. Canada has a more developed processing industry and a more stable seasonal work force that industry can draw from, he said.
“It will be difficult to compete with the Canadians, because they’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said.
While fishermen and the task force brainstorm, lenders have been working with fishermen to make sure they can maintain, said Joseph Murphy, president of Bar Harbor Bank & Trust.
Murphy said he realized there was a problem last fall when the price of lobster fell below the price of fuel.
“The day it became unprofitable to leave the dock, then it became a crisis,” Murphy said. “This is such an important working waterfront industry in Maine, and no one wants to see it go under.”
Murphy said Bar Harbor Bank & Trust is one of several lenders that has sent representatives to lobster zone council meetings to encourage fishermen who are having trouble making their boat payments to talk to their banks. His bank has 50 fishermen clients who have been able to work out new boat payment schedules with bank officials, he said.
“Nobody wants to [repossess a boat],” Murphy said. “A bank doesn’t make any money with a boat, but a fishermen does. What fisherman is going to buy another fisherman’s boat?”
The bank CEO said his institution recognizes the importance lobster fishing plays on Maine’s coast, and that by being flexible with fishermen banks have been responsive to community needs, not just individual ones. He said that he is optimistic that the price of lobster this year will stay high enough for fishermen to make a profit.
“It’s probably going to take another hauling season before it rights itself,” he said of the industry as a whole. “We think it probably will.”