JONESPORT, Maine — Maine’s lobstermen are meeting this week with fellow lobstermen from Ireland, New Zealand, western Australia, Tasmania, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, and learning they have as many similarities as differences.
Lobstermen all over the world pull on their rubber boots, they observed at a meeting at Tall Barney’s restaurant in Jonesport on Monday, and struggle with the same environmental, sustainability and retailing issues.
But there are marked differences, as well.
In some lands, such as Australia, the country’s entire lobstering fleet is smaller than the fleet berthed at Jonesport-Beals.
In Ireland there are no catch or trap limits.
In Tasmania, lobstermen use a round, woven trap.
As part of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s International Conference, the fishermen noted that they often use different equipment, fish for different species, and — most importantly — get very different prices for their catch.
Lobstermen who aggressively market their product, particularly to the Asian market, can get up to $28 a pound for lobsters, even spiny lobsters that do not have the meaty claws that the lobsters from the North Atlantic do.
“Every time I turn on the television, I see ads for blueberries, or cranberries or milk,” said Scott Bruce, a lobsterman from Prince Edward Island, at the gathering in Jonesport. “I never see lobsters advertised.”
The conference is intended to get fishermen from a variety of countries and cultures talking to one another and sharing ideas.
Sunday night they visited Cutler; Monday they were at Jonesport and Mount Desert Island; and a regional meeting is planned in Ellsworth today.
Sustainability of their fisheries was a serious topic, but most Maine lobstermen said they were most envious of the markets and the large prices the other fishing countries had tapped into.
Most of the other countries had installed trap limits or fishing quotas to help manage their industry.
But most of the other countries also aggressively marketed to countries with eager consumers.
Ireland sells to France; Australia sells to Japan; Tasmania and New Zealand market to China. Prices they are paid for their lobsters range from $19 to $30 per pound.
Maine fishermen sell locally or to Canada and are getting $5 to $6 per pound. For 2009, preliminary estimates released this month indicate that the average statewide boat price for lobster last year was $2.93 a pound, which would be the lowest statewide average since 1998, when it was $2.92.
“I didn’t agree with this at first,” Jonesport lobsterman Dwight Carver said Monday. “But I would be willing to pay a few cents of every pound towards a marketing program. That’s if we get the right person in there.”
Carver said most Maine fishermen have been reluctant to support a marketing program because they could not feel confident that the money provided would be well-spent. But the time for such a program has come, he said.
Over lunch, the fishermen discussed other topics, such as conservation measures, license requirements, apprenticeship programs, brand recognition and certification.
Becoming certified through the Marine Stewardship Council could be key to augmenting any marketing program, Chris Beissel of Australia said.
The program allows lobsters to bear a tag that identifies them as coming from fisheries that practice sustainable harvesting.
“There are strict guidelines and a significant cost to the fishery,” Beissel said, “but it is really worth it.” He said Australia is the first country to have its lobsters certified under MSC standards.
“It has opened many doors to us in Europe,” Beissel said. “It is well worth the investment.”
Larnce Wichman of New Zealand said his country’s lobster industry is not seeking MSC status simply for the sake of marketing.
“We’re doing it for environmental reasons. We’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the fishermen that MSC “is about giving the customer what they want. It is entirely market driven.”
She said Maine is seeking MSC status. “A preliminary assessment has been conducted and things looked good for Maine,” she said.
“The full assessment has been returned and is in the confidential phase right now,” she added. “It should be public soon.”
The International Lobstermen’s Exchange will continue through March 14, winding up at the Boston Seafood Show.
There will be a regional meeting at Ellsworth, 2-4 p.m. today at Ellsworth City Hall; and local meetings in Stonington, March 9 and 10; Vinalhaven, March 10; Thomaston, March 11; Phippsburg, March 11; and Long Island and a regional meeting in Portland March 12 and 13, possibly including a tour of lobster processors.
For more information about individual meetings, call 967-4555 or 380-7583 or go to www.mainelobstermen.org.