ELLSWORTH, Maine — Many different aspects about Maine’s lobster industry were brought up Tuesday afternoon when a state-sanctioned task force met at a local hotel to discuss the industry’s long-term viability.
But lobstermen who were invited to speak to the task force zeroed in primarily on one topic.
They said their main concern was the price they get for their catch. No matter how high their expenses might be, they said, they essentially have no choice but to accept what dealers tell them they are willing to pay.
Frank Gotwals, president of the Stonington Lobster Co-op, said the price he got last fall was probably one the lowest prices he’s received for his catch since he started fishing in 1976. Diesel and bait prices soared last year to all-time highs, but the price lobstermen got for their catch last fall, when they usually are at their busiest, sank to around $2 a pound after it had averaged more than $4 a pound for each of the past several years. The last time the average annual price of lobster in Maine was within 10 cents of $2 a pound was in 1981, according to statistics compiled by Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“We’re at the bottom,” Gotwals said of the industry’s ability to make a profit. “We can’t really go [fishing] for what we’re getting now.”
Bar Harbor fisherman Jon Carter said lobstermen historically have not made a lot of money, but that the economic pressures of fishing for a living have become more intense in recent years. Fishermen are the only ones involved in the supply chain of lobsters who cannot mark up their price to cover their expenses, he said.
Carter said an official with Darden’s Restaurants, which owns and operates the Red Lobster chain, told him their markup is 34 percent.
“There’s a huge markup after it leaves us,” Carter said. “Huge.”
The task force, officially called the Governor’s Task Force on the Economic Sustainability of Maine’s Lobster Industry, was created last fall. Its purpose is look into ways the economics of the industry might be made more stable, so that the wild divergence between expenses and profits that the industry saw last year can be avoided.
The task force, which last month hired Moseley Group to consult and assist on the project, is supposed to compile a report on its recommendations and to give it to Gov. John Baldacci by April 15.
Besides the fishermen, the task force also heard from researchers, other fishing community representatives and a seafood distribution equipment businessman from Nova Scotia.
Joe Boudreau of BioNovations in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, told the panel he has developed a delivery and storage system that allows lobster to be transported long distances but has only a 0.5 percent mortality rate. Maine lobster, much of which is caught with soft shells, often is not suited for being shipped to distant markets.
“The problem is not the volume of lobster that you’re catching,” said Boudreau, who said he still is a licensed commercial fisherman. “The problem is getting it to market.”
The task force also has been looking into the possibility of getting some sort of sustainable fishery certification for the industry, which could help garner a higher price for Maine lobster. Officials of all types at the meeting agreed that Maine’s lobster resource is healthy and shows no signs of being depleted
Gouldsboro lobster dealer Dana Rice urged caution with pursuing such certification, however. He said that if the industry relies on an outside group to get certified, such a designation could end up hurting the industry if the group decides Maine’s lobster fishery is not so sustainable after all.
According to Deirdre Gilbert of DMR, the task force likely will meet with Moseley Group consultant Kristen Bailey to determine whether it needs to hold another public forum before it compiles its report by April 15.