ELLSWORTH, Maine — State officials have confirmed annual catch totals that lobster industry representatives anticipated last fall, when the price of lobster fell to abnormally low levels during the fishery’s busiest time of year.
Even though the total volume of lobster landings increased in 2008 by 3 million pounds, the estimated total monetary value of the lobster caught in Maine fell sharply from the previous year, according to preliminary figures released late Wednesday afternoon by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Maine’s licensed commercial lobstermen brought ashore approximately $235.5 million worth of lobster last year, a drop of nearly $50 million from the $285 million worth of lobster they caught in 2007.
The estimated volume of lobster caught last year was 67.3 million pounds, or 3 million pounds more than the 64.3 million pounds landed in Maine in 2007, DMR indicated.
With 67.3 million pounds valued at $235.5 million, the average per-pound price that lobstermen received for their catch last year was just below $3.50. That is the lowest annual average price in Maine since 2002, when the annual average boat price was $3.32, according to DMR statistics. The average annual per-pound boat price in 2007 was $4.43.
Of last year’s decrease in total value, most of it occurred during the final three months of the year when prices fell sharply, the statistics indicate. The value of lobster caught in Maine from October through December 2007 was $104.5 million, but for the same three months in 2008 the value of the landings totaled $60.5 million, representing a drop of $44 million for those three months alone.
The volume for the same three months decreased slightly from 2007 to 2008, from 24 million pounds to 23.1 million pounds.
Bob Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said Wednesday that the decrease in value is a symptom of the poor economy. The overall increase in landings despite the drop in price, he said, is a good sign for the lobster resource.
“The fact the catch was good speaks well for how the fishery is managed,” Bayer said. “Hopefully, the economy picks up and so does the lobster industry.”
The highest annual volume on record for lobster landings in Maine was 75.3 million pounds in 2006, but state officials believe more lobsters may have been caught in Maine before 2004, when lobster dealers were first required to report landings to the state. The highest recorded annual value of lobster landed in Maine was in 2005, when fishermen caught $318 million worth. Maine accounts for 80 percent of North Atlantic lobsters caught in the United States.
The fall fishing season is usually the busiest time of the year for Maine lobstermen. As fishing expenses such as bait and diesel fuel soared late last summer, however, the price lobstermen were paid for their catch fell to around $2 a pound, well below annual averages in recent years of more than $4 a pound.
By comparison, diesel fuel prices last summer were considerably higher late last summer than in 2002, the most recent year before 2008 when the average annual boat price was below $3.50 a pound. Diesel prices in Maine rose to nearly $5 a gallon last July, but in midsummer 2002 the average national price for diesel was around $1.30, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Lobster prices typically rise between January and May, when most Maine fishermen bring their gear ashore and the supply of fresh lobster decreases. In recent weeks, the boat price for lobster in Maine generally has been around $5 a pound.
Many fishermen, concerned that their expenses were outstripping the money they could make by selling lobsters for around $2 a pound, curtailed their fishing effort last fall. The relative lack of demand for lobsters has resulted in fishermen having trouble making boat payments and in the creation of a governor-appointed task force charged with looking into the industry’s long-term viability.