ELLSWORTH, Maine — If there is anything commercial fishermen in Maine have learned over the past several years, it is that things aren’t the way they used to be.
Scallop catches are creeping back up as prices have hit an all-time high. Elver prices have come down a bit but remain historically high after shooting into the stratosphere — along with statewide landings totals — in the past two years. Urchin landings, however, continue to slide while the populations of cod and northern shrimp in the Gulf of Maine have sunk to their lowest levels on record.
But nothing touches the upheaval Maine’s lobster fishery, by far the biggest in the state, has experienced. Warm water during the past couple of years disrupted the fishery’s patterns, forcing prices down while landings totals have soared.
This year seems to be different in a way many in the lobster industry say is familiar and is a welcome change of pace. Lobsters have been shedding and growing larger shells later this year than in 2012 and 2013, which has meant the resulting increase in landings has not occurred as early as it did in the past two summers.
Though the statewide catch total so far may be comparatively low, demand has been good, which means the prices have been better this season. Many lobster fishermen were getting less than $2 per pound for soft-shell lobsters last summer, not including a year-end bonus many receive from their dealers. This year, the price at the dock generally has been higher by a dollar or even two.
“The price is better,” lobsterman Cary Carver, 44, of Beals, said Thursday.
He said the cold weather last winter meant it took longer for the Gulf of Maine to warm up, which resulted in prices and a pace of landings the industry traditionally is used to.
“Mother Nature is putting itself back on an even keel,” said Carver, who recalled the warmer waters caused lobsters to shed twice last year.
Carver said he can get $2.50 for shedders and $5 for hard-shell lobster, which fetch a better price because they can be shipped live over long distances. A year ago at this time, the price was about $1.65 and $2.50, respectively, plus the bonus, he said.
Lobster fishing is allowed year-round in Maine, but the vast majority of landings occur in the summer and fall, when lobsters have migrated closer to shore. Price fluctuates seasonally along with the catch, usually rising higher in the winter when the supply is relatively low.
Maine lobstermen on average annually earned more than $4 per pound in the mid-2000s, when they caught roughly between 65 million pounds and 75 millions pounds of lobster each year. Prices have declined since, with fishermen averaging first $2.69 and then $2.89 per pound in 2012 and 2013, but the statewide catch total has been above 125 million pounds in each of the past two years.
Lobstermen statewide had gross revenues of $364.5 million last year, the highest ever total value for Maine’s annual lobster catch. Overall, state and industry officials say the industry’s impact on the state’s economy each year is more than $1 billion.
In eastern Canada, lobster is a winter and spring fishery, which helps to balance out the seasonal fluctuation of landings in Maine. But as the past couple of years have demonstrated, problems can arise when Maine and Canadian fishermen experience heavy landings at the same time of year and the dealers and distributors have more lobster on their hands than they can find buyers for.
Hugh Reynolds, owner of operator of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, said a key difference this year is the clear separation between the market availability of Canadian and Maine lobster. This has prevented a repeat of the infamous, so-called “glut” of 2012, when an overlap of heavy landings in Maine and Canada sank prices to their lowest levels in nearly 20 years.
“It’s a calmer summer. It’s back to normal,” Reynolds said. “You don’t have the pandemonium of 2012 and 2013.”
Reynolds said Canada had heavy landings this past spring but there have been enough interested buyers, especially in China, to keep prices comparatively high. He said fishermen in Stonington are getting in the “mid-$3 range” per pound for soft-shell lobster.
“There seems to be more market demand for lobster,” Reynolds said.
According to information posted on the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association website, prices being offered this week to fishermen are roughly $3.25 per pound for shedders and $6 for hard-shell lobsters.
Bob Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine Lobster Institute, said the late onset of landings this year could bode well for September and October, when much of the annual harvest in Maine is brought ashore.
Bayer said he had heard from some fishermen that the usual, post-molt uptick in catches has only begun in the past two weeks — months later in the year than in 2012 and 2013.
“It’s been a quiet summer,” Bayer said. “It looks like [it could be] a strong fall.”
Dean Crosman, owner of Little River Lobster Co. in Cutler, said landings have intensified in recent weeks. He agreed with Carver, saying cold water temperatures this spring led to the later molt and have helped keep prices afloat.
Although the catch volume so far seems to be down compared to the past two years, Crosman said, there is still plenty a lot of fishing left to be done. He is hopeful landings will be good through the next two months and into November.
“It’s still early for us,” Crosman noted. “We’ll see, I guess. Never know in the fishing business.”