CAMDEN, Maine — The combination of natural and market forces affecting Maine’s 2012 lobster season is not a fluke, lobster industry officials told fishermen on Wednesday.
So if the price lobstermen are getting for their catch is going to go back up for any sustained period of time, something needs to be done beyond what Mother Nature might bring to the table.
Officials with Maine Department of Marine Resources hosted a meeting Wednesday at the local high school to discuss with fishermen and other industry officials what might be done. Industry officials agreed that the glut of soft-shell lobsters landed this spring and summer, and the resulting price of below $2 per pound that most fishermen are getting, will not keep any of them in business over the long term.
Maine’s lobster industry employs about 5,000 licensed commercial fishermen — not including stern men, dealers, processors and others who make a living from lobster — who brought ashore an estimated 104.8 million pounds of lobster in 2011, the highest annual landings figure ever. The total amount of money fishermen earned directly from that statewide catch is $334 million, according to DMR statistics.
About 50 people, including fishermen, dealers, DMR officials and others, gathered Wednesday morning to discuss why soft-shell lobsters seem to be so prevalent in the Gulf of Maine so far this year.
Carl Wilson, lobster biologist with DMR, said that water temperature appears to have contributed to the timing of this year’s early molt, when lobsters shed their smaller shells in favor of larger ones that take time to harden. Wilson said last winter was mild and that coastal water temperatures were higher this spring and have stayed that way.
“The shed is going to happen,” Wilson said. “When depends on how cold the water is and how quickly it warms up in the spring.”
Warmer water temperatures appear to be a more common occurrence along the East Coast and elsewhere, leading many industry officials to believe that temperatures in the Gulf of Maine will be consistently higher than they have been over the past several decades.
“We’re going to see this trend continue if water temperatures remain the same,” Bob Baines, a South Thomaston fisherman and chairman of DMR’s lobster advisory council, told the group.
Dave Cousens, also from South Thomaston and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said he doesn’t see the water temperature cooling off any time soon.
“We have warm water,” Cousens said. “I don’t think that’s going to change in the near future.”
Another factor affecting the price is the quality of the lobsters that are being caught, which generally means the health of the lobsters and the amount of meat they produce. Many diners say they prefer the tenderness of the meat from soft-shell lobsters, but to industry officials the term “quality” usually applies to volume and appearance.
Lobsters have to be kept alive until they are cooked but soft-shell lobsters have a lower survival rate when they are shipped. Many dealers have said they are experiencing a lot more “shrinkage” this year, or lobster mortality, which is affecting their profitability, too.
How lobsters are handled is part of what contributes to the quality of the catch. The sharp increase in landings over the past 20-plus years has led fishermen, dockhands and others to work faster and handle the lobsters more roughly, industry officials said later Wednesday morning after separating into smaller discussion groups. This can result in weak animals dying or in some sustaining severed claws or cracked shells.
“The quality’s gone right down the crapper,” said Peter McAleney of New Meadows Lobster.
Before 1990, the average annual landings of lobster had fluctuated roughly between 16 million and 22 million pounds for 40 years, which is one-seventh to one quarter of last year’s landings.
Fishermen and dealers say they don’t have time to cull through the catch, which results in more lobsters that might not be in good shape to begin with being lumped in with healthier animals to be transported to distributors and retailers.
“Fishermen aren’t picking these things out and they should be,” said Ronnie Trundy, manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-op.
After the small discussion groups reconvened after lunch, other ideas were discussed, such as reducing the number of traps each fishermen can use (most are limited to 800) — perhaps on a trial basis — or not allowing fishermen to haul gear on Saturdays.
John Norton, president and CEO of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, cautioned about taking steps to reduce landings during certain times of the year and to increase them at others. The would create havoc in the supply chain, he said, which would just result in a glut and the price bottoming out in a different season.
Norton said that if an abundance of soft-shell lobsters continues to be a problem, the market would adjust accordingly.
“Taking a knee-jerk reaction now for something that has been happening for a short time is not the way to go,” he said. “Nobody knows what next year is going to bring.”
Some fishermen expressed frustration, however, that some in the industry think that things should be left as they are. Cousens, saying he wants to preserve the fishery for his two sons, said that simply doing nothing was unacceptable. He said his daily profit after paying his sternmen and for bait and fuel was 66 cents per pound last week, not including a 50-cent per pound dividend he would get at the end of the year.
“If we don’t make a dramatic change in this industry, five years from now there will be very few people left in it,” he said. “I can’t go [fishing] for $1.16 per pound. It doesn’t work.”
Baines said he too thinks that just slight alterations to what fishermen and dealers do won’t have any real effects for boosting the price or the viability of the industry.
“We can’t nibble around the edges,” he said. “We have to do something substantial.”
Baines said that DMR’s Lobster Advisory Council is expected to discuss the ideas from Wednesday’s session at its next regular meeting, which is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16, at the state Natural Resources Service Center in Hallowell. He said ideas that the industry or DMR might pursue, or that might be suggested to the Legislature, probably will take months to take shape fully.
Follow Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.