High lobster landings in Canada keep dockside prices low in Maine

Freshly-caught lobsters wait to be transported in this 2010 file photo.
Bridget Brown | BDN
Freshly-caught lobsters wait to be transported in this 2010 file photo.
Posted June 14, 2013, at 1:38 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Similar to 2012, prices Maine lobster fishermen are getting for their catch are low for this time of year, when a low supply usually results in higher prices.

But this spring it’s not high landings of soft-shell lobster in Maine that are to blame, according to lobster industry officials. It’s high landings of hard-shell lobster in Canada.

Maine lobstermen don’t catch much in the spring and so supply is generally low. Fishermen now generally are getting prices between $3 and $4 per pound, which was the average annual range from the late 1990s through 2011.

Springtime prices paid to fishermen typically are higher than the annual average, rising as high as $10 per pound in April 2007. A year ago, springtime prices were roughly a dollar lower than what they are now.

For all of 2012, Maine lobstermen on average earned $2.63 per pound for their catch, which is the lowest annual average statewide “boat” price since 1994. Maine lobstermen caught 126 million pounds in 2012, the highest annual amount ever recorded in Maine.

Last spring, unusually warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine caused lobsters to shed their shells earlier than normal, which in turn resulted in abnormally high springtime landings in Maine. Canadian fishermen, who fish in 44 different zones and generally are restricted to varying season dates in the winter and spring, also caught unusually large amounts of lobster in the spring of 2012. Maine lobstermen are permitted to fish year-round but typically ramp up their efforts in May and fish heavily through summer and fall.

The glut in Maine and Canada last spring pushed prices that fishermen earned for their catch to their lowest levels in decades on both sides of the border. In Maine, many fishermen said they had to settle for prices around $2 per pound. In Canada, fishermen blockaded deliveries of Maine lobster to Canadian processors, saying they could not compete with the lower-priced imports.

This spring, high landings in the Maritime Provinces again have depressed prices that Canadian lobstermen have been getting. Canadian fishermen have not complained about Maine lobster imports so far in 2013, but they have staged more protests and blockades this spring as they demand a higher price from their dealers and processors.

This past winter, bottom temperatures in the Gulf of Maine — though still warm compared with past years — were not as warm as a year ago. There likely are many factors that determine when lobsters shed their shells, which hardens again between molts, industry officials said Thursday. So far, they added, the shed is not repeating its early 2012 appearance in 2013.

“The overall catch is down from [this time] last year,” Warren Polk, manager of the Corea Lobster Cooperative in Gouldsboro, said Thursday.

The surge in hard-shell lobster landings this spring in Canada’s Maritime Provinces has kept prices low for Maine fishermen, he said. About three-quarters of the co-op’s inventory is hard-shell lobster, he added, but that will change as lobsters begin to shed when warmer summer temperatures arrive.

“[Canada] had some very high yields this year,” Polk said.

He said the co-op is paying $2.25 for soft-shell, $3.25 for hard-shell, and $4.25 for “select” lobster, which tend to be lobsters 2 pounds or more destined for the upscale restaurant market. Fishermen-owned cooperatives often initially pay their members a slightly lower per-pound price than a private dealer but then at the end of the year pay an added dividend to their members based on the co-op’s volume of sales for that year.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Thursday that there used to be little market overlap between Maine lobster and Canadian lobster. For example, smaller lobsters caught in Canada but banned in Maine would go to Canadian processors while soft-shell lobster caught in Maine would fill the live lobster market during New England’s summer tourist season.

But as overall annual landings in both Canada and Maine have increased, McCarron said, the regions have competed more directly for existing customers and new ones. When shipped, soft-shell lobsters have a higher mortality rate than hard-shell lobsters, which means there were fewer market options for them last spring, when processors already were near capacity from the high Canadian landings.

The fact that most of Maine’s catch this spring has been hard-shell, she said, means there are more market options for them and therefore better prospects for demand. What might happen in any year is usually difficult to predict, she added, but if Maine’s shedder season can hold off until the end of June, when Canadian landings tail off, Maine lobstermen should be able to command a higher price than they did last summer.

“The shed is clearly behind where it was last year,” McCarron said. “We’re not in the full throttle level yet.”

Robert Bayer, executive director of University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said Thursday that Canadian landings have been high enough that processors have set limits on how much lobster they will buy from Canadian fishermen. In response, lobstermen from Prince Edward Island, where landings have been highest, have limited their fishing efforts.

Bayer said that with the closures of Canadian lobster fishing seasons, it could help boost earnings for Maine fishermen. He added that the economy as a whole looks like it might be improving over where it was a year ago.

“Usually, as the economy goes, similarly goes the price of lobster,” Bayer said.

According to market fish prices tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, dealers in Massachusetts are offering lobstermen around $3-$4 a pound. The service does not specifically list dealer prices in Maine but because Maine fishermen catch the vast majority of American lobster caught on the East Coast, Boston-area dealer prices to fishermen generally are the same as those offered in Maine.

Low prices that fishermen get at the dock don’t always translate to a proportionally low price in supermarkets or at restaurants further down the distribution chain, according to industry officials. Because so many other factors figure into the retail price of lobster — transportation and processing costs, life-support systems for the live market, and how it compares with other high-end food options, among others — consumers usually don’t see the same fluctuations in price that lobstermen may be subject to over the course of a year or even from one year to the next, they have said.

According to Maine-based online seafood dealers, prices on Thursday for direct-to-consumer lobster shipments ranged from $10 to $20 for one 1.25-pound lobster. Red Lobster, which according to its website has more than 680 restaurants across the country ( none of which are in Maine), on Thursday listed prices for a 1.25-pound lobster dinner from under $27 to $29, depending on the restaurant location.

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