Lobstermen up and down the coast are staying on-shore, effectively grounded by prices so low it has become uneconomical to haul traps.
“Personally, I haven’t gone out for a couple of days. I don’t like the price — I don’t want to give them away,” said Richard Alley, a lobsterman based out of Addison. “We can’t say we’re striking or anything; that’s against the law. I’m just taking a few days off and enjoying the sun.”
A glut of lobsters and an unseasonably early shedding season for the crustaceans has caused a problem for lobstermen, though it has been a boon for consumers. Retailers have been selling small, soft-shell lobsters for as little as $3.79 a pound in the Portland area.
Back up the pipeline a bit, lobstermen have been getting as little as $2.60 a pound for their catch from dealers. Alley said at that price, he’s just barely covering his expenses. And a few days ago, a dealer called the co-op Alley belongs to and tried to push the price down even further, to $1.75 a pound.
“I think they’re playing a game with us, but that’s just my opinion,” said Alley, adding that the last time he saw prices so low for his catch was when he first started lobstering in 1966.
The soft-shell lobsters, or “shedders,” appeared roughly a month earlier than usual. Most of those lobsters usually go to Canadian processors. But the processors haven’t been able to handle the Maine catch because Canadian lobstermen had such strong catches during their spring season, resulting in a backlog. Many Canadian processors were caught unaware and still are unprepared to take on the Maine lobsters.
Adding to the problem is that shedders can’t be shipped, as they’re too fragile to survive the journey. So the lobsters coming off the boat have a limited geographic market, hence the glut and low prices.
Normally, the processors aren’t ready for Maine lobsters until the middle of July, said Dave Cousens, a South Thomaston lobsterman.
Cousens said he hasn’t been out lobstering since Monday.
“It’s down to a point now where it’s not worth it to go out. It’s ridiculous,” said Cousens.
Many lobstermen either aren’t going out, or have voluntarily slowed down their operations, said Cousens. His revenues don’t even cover his expenses, Cousens said. The hope is that the processing plants will come online in the next week or so and prices will jump 50 or 75 cents a pound as demand grows to meet supply.
Cousens and Alley laid a lot of the blame for the problem at the docks, specifically on dealers, who are the middlemen between lobstermen and retailers.
“The dealers kept dropping the prices instead of telling us to stop fishing,” said Cousens. “They should have just said, ‘we don’t want to buy for a week.’ Everyone would have stayed in. By next Monday, everything would be back to normal, the pipeline would clean up, the processing plants would come online.”
But Peter McAleney of New Meadows Lobster, president of the Maine Import Export Lobster Dealers Association, said the dealers were as surprised by the market conditions as anyone else.
“We never had this happen before; it’s something new,” said McAleney. “We, the dealers, weren’t ready for it.
“It was an industrywide problem. Mother Nature was not playing ball.”
McAleney said it was tough to predict exactly what might happen next, as some abnormally high and low tides currently are hitting Maine’s coast, making lobstering somewhat unpredictable. After that subsides, he said, hopefully the processors will be up and running. And, he added, hopefully Maine’s tourist season will drive up demand for some of the local lobster.
Jon Carter of Bar Harbor said he didn’t lobster Thursday, and planned to do as little as he could Friday.
“We all have bills; we all have people we need to pay,” said Carter. “When it’s costing you money to go, it doesn’t make sense.”
If everyone up and down the coast could take a week off and not fish, that inventory would move through the pipeline, he said. But there will be some people who still lobster, making whatever money they can, he said.
“We’re not good businessmen; we’re lobster catchers. We should start being businessmen,” said Carter. “I’m not faulting them. If we could get together, we wouldn’t have these things happening to us. The dealers should be helping us, too.”
Carter said he hoped things got back to normal, with higher prices soon.
“If they don’t, a lot of us won’t be around,” said Carter.