EDITORIALS

The lobster industry needs to catch up

Posted July 27, 2012, at 3:01 p.m.

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Lobstermen Jed Colston (foreground) and Jon McCann organize some of their 1,300 traps on Widgery Wharf, in Portland in April 2011.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Lobstermen Jed Colston (foreground) and Jon McCann organize some of their 1,300 traps on Widgery Wharf, in Portland in April 2011.

Over time, fishermen have adapted to meet new rope requirements and conservation measures. They have adapted to technology, endured trap limits and still gone out to complete their often dangerous and tiring work. They have caught an astounding number of lobsters over the last 10 years but have seen sinking per-pound prices.

Managing the industry requires continuous adapting, as lobstermen and dealers know well. The latest challenge will be to grow demand to meet rising supply.

How will the industry reach more consumers? It will require marketing, more new and convenient lobster products and getting to more inland customers. But most important, a plan will require buy-in from all levels: fishermen, dealers, private businesses and local, regional, state and federal governments.

The mandatory v-notch program, requiring lobstermen to notch all egg-bearing lobsters before putting them back in the water, is one conservation measure that has helped grow the lobster population to record levels. Last year more than 100 million pounds of lobster were landed; in 2001 there were about 50 million pounds.

This year the situation was complicated by a glut of soft-shell lobsters early in the season. Canadian lobstermen also had a good early season, leaving processors in their country full and unable to take more lobster from Maine.

Maine fishermen therefore saw a low price of lobster due to excessive supply. For some, the price they would get for their catch would not pay for their costs of fuel, bait and wear and tear on a boat. Many people stayed home.

It’s not possible to tell whether the spike in early shedders was a chance occurrence or part of a trend, but it certainly raises questions about how to improve the industry to protect against such low prices.

Prices have declined: The 1981 price of lobster, adjusted to meet 2007 dollars, was $5.95 per pound, according to the Department of Marine Resources. In 2007, it was $4.75, a decrease of about 20 percent. The average price per pound in 2011, not adjusted for inflation, was $3.19.

The goal should be to get more lobsters and lobster products to people across the United States, and that will require more marketing, as the Maine Lobster Advisory Council is proposing.

But a marketing campaign has to be smart. It has to identify whether it’s going to target certain audiences like dealers or restaurants, and it should have a goal of improving the lobstermen’s bottom line. That means requiring everyone in the industry to chip in for the branding campaign and not relying too heavily on lobstermen to contribute. Figuring out who pays how much will require communication and collaboration.

People across Maine and the Northeast can help spread the word about lobsters, including lobster-related groups, tourism-related groups and stores. Lobster is a delicious, free-range protein with no additives or chemicals. The crustaceans come from a sustainable fishery and support thousands of independent Maine businesses (lobstermen). This should be an easy product for which to advertise.

The Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, of which the BDN is a primary sponsor, serves as an example to follow. The event is promoted internationally and draws 40,000-50,000 people each year. It buys 20,000 pounds of local lobster to feed its festival goers, and the dates — this year it’s Aug. 1-5 — are picked to coincide with the time when there are a large number of shedders. The festival also adjusts the price of its cooked lobsters to account for the going rate. Last year the price of a single dinner was $14; this year it’s $12.

Another part of the solution will be to identify what consumers are likely to purchase and then getting them the product. Many people don’t want to handle live lobsters and would rather heat up lobster ravioli or lobster macaroni and cheese. Having more of those specialty, convenient, value-added products in the marketplace will provide expanded income for the industry.

Mainers — and tourists — should shop smart. When lobstermen are getting $2 per pound, don’t buy a $17 lobster roll. Support stores and restaurants that are able to sell more lobsters by offering more reasonable prices.

It would be beneficial for key players in the lobster industry to sit down together and determine whether or not there is enough buy-in to re-examine how the industry operates. If people are committed to making fundamental changes, they could examine all the issues that contribute to marketing and pricing. It would require fishermen and dealers to participate fully, in addition to the governor’s office and the Department of Marine Resources.

Lobstering is a vital industry for the state. Last year it brought in $331.4 million and supported the jobs of 5,000 licensed commercial fishermen and many more people in supportive, essential roles. It needs to be managed to adapt for growing catches to ensure people whose livelihoods depend on the lobster industry can continue to make a living.

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