ROCKPORT, Maine — In light of mounting economic and environmental changes in Maine’s commercial fishing industry, at least two concepts seem to be cropping up more consistently among people who fish or sell seafood for a living.
These concepts worked their way into more than one seminar held Saturday at the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum at the Samoset Resort.
In some seminars, fishermen and regulators agreed that more research is needed for scientists to better understand the relative health of commercial fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine. In other seminars, industry officials said more and better marketing is needed to help boost the price and popularity of seafood from Maine. Sometimes, the two concepts were combined into calls for more market research about how to promote Maine seafood products.
John Hathaway, owner of Shucks Maine Lobster food products company in Richmond, said that if lobstermen want to push up the value of their catch, they need to spend some time and energy finding out what consumers want. Last year, the recorded landings of lobster in Maine hit an all-time high of 75.6 million pounds, but the average price Maine fishermen got for their catch fell below $3 a pound for the first time in more than 10 years.
“To me, that should be the first step that we take,” Hathaway told a room full of people. After that, the industry should try to develop value-added products, invest in technology to produce those items, and then market them to the public, he said.
“You should be making more money, adding more value and giving people what they want,” Hathaway said.
In a separate seminar, George Parmenter of Hannaford Bros. said the Maine-based supermarket firm is developing standards for verifying that the seafood it sells was harvested with sustainable methods. He said that more than half of Hannaford’s surveyed customers indicated they want to know how and where their seafood was caught and want to see some kind of sustainability labeling on seafood products.
“Our customers expect us to be acting responsibly,” Parmenter said.
Marketing has helped some scallop fishermen find repeat local customers for their catch, but some fishermen suggested that possible stricter regulations are a bigger issue. To help protect declining scallop stocks, the state Scallop Advisory Council has considered recommending smaller daily catch limits and drag sizes, but some fishermen said doing so is not in the best interests of scallop fishermen.
Steve Patryn of Jonesboro said he thinks a daily catch limit of 120 pounds and a maximum drag size of 5½ feet are too small.
“I don’t think the [proposed lower] catch limit is going to work,” he said. “I don’t want to see a drag size limit.”
As for herring, no one suggested Saturday that better marketing might be helpful. The most urgent problem with herring, which is the bait of choice for most lobstermen, is that sharp cutbacks in the federal quota on herring has fishermen concerned there won’t be enough to meet the overall demand. The quota reduction has been cited by Bumble Bee Foods, whose cannery in Prospect Harbor is the last sardine cannery in the United States, as the reason it has decided to close the plant down for good in April.
Industry officials and regulators mostly do not agree on whether the reduced overall quota of 106,000 metric tons is necessary or appropriate, but both sides agree that more comprehensive scientific data are needed to better regulate the industry. The overall annual limit of 106,000 metric tons will last through 2012.
“The information we’ve been using to make those guesses isn’t really good,” said Mary Beth Tooley of Small Pelagic Group, who is a member of New England Fisheries Management Council.
Tooley said industry officials are trying to organize a stakeholder meeting next month in Portland to discuss how to pursue another scientific assessment that hopefully will generate more scientific data about herring stocks than the most recent assessment.
Beyond better science, some fishermen wanted to know how the lobster industry might have better access to what herring is available. The time of year where herring is in highest demand is in late summer and early fall, when lobstermen are busiest setting and hauling traps.
David Ellenton, general manager for Cape Sea Foods in Gloucester, Mass., and a member of NEFMC, said the lobster bait market is the best market for herring. The problem is that lobster industry demand peaks in the latter half of the year, when it is more likely that annual herring catches are getting close to the limit.
“Hopefully, what we saw last year will repeat itself for the next three years,” Ellenton said, referring to high herring catch rates around Georges Bank. Lobster industry officials have credited herring catches from Georges Bank with helping to boost the availability of bait last year.
“The bait market has to step up and buy that fish,” Ellenton said.
The Maine Fishermen’s Forum ran from Thursday through Saturday.