TRENTON, Maine — Help is available for lobstermen who struggled through the harsh economic conditions of the 2009 fishing season, but they will have to do more than fill out federal forms if they want to improve their long-term prospects in the global seafood industry, according to Maine Lobstermen’s Association officials.
MLA has been holding orientation meetings along the coast for the past several weeks for fishermen who want to apply for financial aid from the USDA Trade Adjustment Assistance program. On Thursday, an MLA official at one such meeting at the American Legion hall told about a dozen fishermen that the federal agency is requiring them to develop and submit business plans if they want to receive up to $8,000 in federal funds.
“This program is going to get you thinking differently about your business,” Annie Tselikis, education coordinator for MLA, told the fishermen. “We have to have more people who see their boat as running a business.”
Lobstermen who actively fished in 2009, when the prices they got for their catch sank to their lowest point in nearly 15 years, can receive up to $4,000 from the federal Farm Service Agency as long as they develop initial business plans, Tselikis said. If they develop long-term business plans, they can receive up to $8,000.
The program is geared toward lobstermen who fished in 2009, she said, because that is when the average annual price that lobstermen were paid sank to $2.93 per pound, roughly the same amount they got in 1996. Despite the drop in prices, for the past several years fishermen have faced near record high expenses for fuel and bait, she added.
Jim Dow, a Bar Harbor fisherman and MLA vice president, said Friday that the federal assistance program is important because it will help lobstermen recover a little from 2009 and, more important, will help them prepare for the future. The expanding global economy and increased competition from rising seafood imports means Maine’s lobster industry will have to do more than just catch and sell live lobster in the Northeast if it is going to survive and thrive, he said.
“Everyone is starting to realize it is a world economy and we are finding competitors in the world market,” Dow said.
But beyond having individual lobstermen plan more strategically about how they operate, fishermen need to do more on an industry-wide scale, Dow said. Developing more global demand for Maine lobster through an international marketing campaign is key, he said, and research and development is almost, if not equally, important. Both were recommended two years ago by a task force established by former Gov. John Baldacci to examine the industry’s long-term economic prospects, he added.
Finding new ways to ship live lobster effectively to new markets, such as by developing new climate controlled shipping containers, is one such way to increase demand, Dow said. Developing more value-added lobster products and increasing the capacity in Maine for processing lobster into such products are others.
“One way to create more demand is to create more value,” Dow said.
Dow said a new entity, with a much bigger budget than the Maine Lobster Council, is needed to market lobster and to research and develop new industry innovations. The council has an annual budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, he said, but industry officials have estimated that an effective international marketing effort will cost several million dollars each year.
How to fund such an effort is one of the challenges, according to Dow. If fishermen are willing to contribute 5 cents for every pound of lobster they catch to a marketing fund, he said, it could help. Last year, Maine fishermen caught an estimated 93 million pounds of lobster that they sold on average for $3.31 per pound, according to state statistics. From 2004 through 2007, fishermen had received more than $4 per pound for their catch.
As for the USDA trade adjustment assistance program, MLA has several more orientation meetings planned up and down the coast, according to Tselikis. Upcoming meetings in the next week or so are planned in Falmouth, Machias, Portsmouth, N.H., and Union, she said.
Sternmen and spouses of fishermen or sternmen also are eligible to apply for the money, Tselikis added, but must either attend an orientation meeting or complete an online orientation course by March 23 to be eligible for the funds.
Tselikis said an average of 70 people have attended the meetings so far, and that nearly 1,900 fishermen, sternmen or their spouses have applied for federal assistance. More information is available at the MLA website and at the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance website.
Lobstermen participating in the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program had to register by the end of last year; must attend 12 hours of training; and are eligible for an additional $8,000 if they complete a long-term business plan on top of the initial business plan they are required to complete. Some 4,600 lobstermen in New England have enrolled for the program, of which 2,700 are from Maine.
Correction: The story "Lobstermen’s group urging members to be more business savvy" should have indicated that lobstermen participating in the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program had to register by the end of last year; must attend 12 hours of training; and are eligible for an additional $8,000 if they complete a long-term business plan on top of the initial business plan they are required to complete. The story also should have said that 4,600 lobstermen in New England have enrolled for the program, of which 2,700 are from Maine.