ELLSWORTH, Maine — The price lobstermen get for their catch has not bounced back since it plummeted last year.
Although it has fluctuated some, the price mostly remains below $3 per pound, and for some areas along the Maine coast, it is below $2.50, as it was last October when prices plunged.
The last time the average price lobstermen received for their catch dipped that low was in 1993, when it was $2.47, according to state statistics.
Compounding the lobstermen’s difficulties is the fact that other prices that affect the cost of doing business, such as diesel fuel and bait, are much higher than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the boat price ranged from slightly under $2 per pound to more than $2.50.
In 1994, the national average price for diesel fuel was around $1.10 per gallon, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Since spiking to $4.70 per gallon a year ago, diesel prices are now around $2.50. That year, the average price Maine lobstermen received for their catch was $2.59 per pound, roughly the same as it is now.
The low prices have some fishermen in Washington County calling for a statewide tie-up, in which lobstermen would leave their boats moored in the harbors with the goal of pushing prices up to the point at which they say they can earn a living.
According to The Associated Press, a group of lobstermen from the Jonesport area met Sunday to talk about organizing such a protest. Lobstermen there are getting around $2.35 a pound but hope that, with a tie-up, they could force prices to around $3.25 or $3.50 a pound.
Attempts Tuesday to contact fishermen in the Jonesport area who are involved in the tie-up effort were unsuccessful.
But while some fishermen are calling for a work stoppage, others say they oppose the idea.
Glen Beal of Beals said Tuesday that he did not attend Sunday’s meeting but thinks enthusiasm for a work stoppage in his area has ebbed since. Lobstermen elsewhere in Maine don’t seem to be interested in participating in a tie-up, he said, and he isn’t either. He said he doesn’t know what else he would do if he weren’t fishing.
“Everyone would like to get more money,” Beal said. “I’d rather make what I’m making now than make nothing. This is it for me.”
Clive Farrin, president of Down East Lobstermen’s Association, said Tuesday that where he fishes in Boothbay Harbor, the price he’s getting is $2.75 per pound, which is about 15 cents better than the low price he got last fall. He said the number of visitors to the Boothbay area, one of Maine’s more popular tourist destinations, seems lower this summer than in previous years.
As for tying up to boost the price, Farrin said it doesn’t make sense to him. Lobstermen could catch fewer lobsters or none to try to bring the price up, but as soon as they start regularly hauling traps, the price would drop again, he said, and in the meantime they’ve got to try to pay their bills.
“The economy itself has got to get healed up,” Farrin said. “You could tie up for a month, and you’re not going to fix the global economy.”
Officials with Maine’s largest commercial fishermen’s group, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, are steering well clear of any work stoppage that may be seen as an attempt to boost the price. Officials at MLA are concerned that anything interpreted as a demand about what the price should be before lobstermen go back out to haul traps could result in a phone call from federal prosecutors.
In the 1950s, MLA was sued by the federal government when it encouraged lobstermen to stop fishing until certain price conditions were met. The group was taken to court, where it faced charges that it was violating federal antitrust laws by attempting to fix the price of lobster.
MLA fought the charges, but lost the case. Since the 1957 court decision, it has been bound by a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The MLA is committed to be at all times in full compliance with applicable laws, including federal and state antitrust and unfair competition laws which prohibit restraint of trade,” MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron said in a news release Monday. “The MLA has been proactive in seeking long-term solutions through the [Governor’s Task Force on the Economic Sustainability of Maine’s Lobster Industry], and we believe that today’s economic crisis underscores the urgent need to move forward with that process.”
On Tuesday, McCarron said MLA’s experience 52 years ago was why it is “staying out” of any plans to tie-up to protest the low prices.
McCarron acknowledged that lobstermen are having a hard time with what they are getting paid for their catch. A few months ago, prices had risen since the drop last fall, to between $3.50 and $4 per pound, she said. Prices usually rise in winter and early spring when the supply of lobster is relatively low compared to demand.
But with the onset of shedder season in late June, when lobsters start molting their shells and become less durable for transportation, the price went back down again, McCarron said. She said MLA’s price report from last week indicated lobstermen were getting between $2.50 and $3 per pound.
“The same week last year it was $3.75 to $4.35,” McCarron said. “It’s definitely extremely low for this time of year.”
McCarron said Maine’s lobster industry, which in 2008 brought ashore an estimated $235 million worth of lobster, continues to suffer from the weak global economy, as do many industries. There may be hope of a long-term boost in the industry by investing more in lobster product development and marketing, she said, but short of that the only likely way lobster prices might recover is if the global economy does, too.
“Retail sales are down. Food service is down. Consumer confidence is down,” McCarron said. “In the short term, we’re not going to see any turnaround.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.