ELLSWORTH, Maine — After two years of unusually high catches of lobster off the Maine coast, commercial landings of the iconic crustacean may be falling back a little in 2014.
People in the lobster industry say that might not be such a bad thing.
Lobsters may have started appearing in traps later this past summer than in 2012 and 2013, but demand for lobster has been good, which helped keep prices at a relatively high level of above $3 for the past several months. The most recent time lobstermen on average earned that much for their catch over the course of an entire calendar year was in 2011, when cumulatively they were paid $3.19 for every pound of lobster they caught.
Trying to parse out why lobster behavior and catches vary from one year to the next often leads to head-scratching, but one cause seems to stand out when trying to make sense of the past few years: water temperature. Scientists, fishermen and data buoys all point to cooler temperatures this summer in the Gulf of Maine as the main reason why the statewide catch may be slacking off a little after the record catches of the past two years.
“We had such a long winter and it didn’t warm up early,” longtime Stonington lobsterman Frank Gotwals said this past week. “The catch didn’t really start until July.”
According to weather buoy data compiled by Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems, or NERACOOS, average monthly water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine were at their highest point in more than a decade (at least) in 2012. The following year, temperatures were a little lower but still high compared to prior years.
From late spring to through early fall this year, temperatures overall have been more in line with average temperatures dating back to 2001, the data indicates. For the most part, they were colder than that average in the months of March and April.
Though prices that fishermen earn vary along the coast, Gotwals said dockside prices that generally hovered above $3 per pound this summer stayed in that range through September and October, which are among the busiest months in Maine’s lobster fishery. The quality of the lobsters, which generally refers to their health and vigor, also has seemed a little improved this year, he added. Fishermen may have caught a lot of lobster in 2012 and 2013, but there was a fairly high mortality rate, too.
“From a lobster’s perspective, a little bit colder is better,” he said.
David Cousens, a South Thomaston lobsterman and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, echoed Gotwals about the water temperature and the quality of this year’s catch. He said Sunday that the healthier lobsters has meant there’s been more demand in the live market, both for the state’s tourist season and overseas, especially in the eastern Asia.
Generally, the price has been about $1 better this year than it was in 2013, Cousens said, which economically has outweighed the lower catch levels for many fishermen.
“It was overall better for everyone,” he said. “The live market was strong.”
Cousens added that dealers may have taken a friendlier approach this year with fishermen they buy lobster from because of two recent high-profile cases in which Maine seafood dealers pleaded guilty to violating federal fishery laws. Winter Harbor seafood dealer Christopher Byers was sentenced in September to serve 30 months in federal prison for his role in an illegal scallop scheme, while Kittery seafood dealer John Price was sentenced last month to serve 45 days in jail after he pleaded guilty to making illegal lobster purchases.
Historically, there has always been a level of distrust between fishermen and dealers, many of whom in each group claim they are not always treated honestly by the people they conduct business with.
Those suspicions aside, the higher demand this year has benefited both fishermen and dealers, according to Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association. She said a desire in Asia for live lobster has helped make sure there is a healthy market for Maine’s signature seafood.
“The demand it definitely good and the quality has been good,” Tselikis said Friday. “It’s looking like it’s going to be a great Christmas.”
Marianne LaCroix, marketing director for the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said Saturday that the newly reorganized marketing entity continues its efforts to boost demand.
She said the organization, formerly known as the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, added a drop-down menu in Chinese on its website several years ago in recognition of increasing sales in Asia, but that recently it has focused its efforts on the domestic market. Next month, the group plans to hire a marketing firm to help promote Maine lobster nationwide, she said.
“We’ve been focusing our marketing efforts on the U.S. because there is great potential for increased demand here, where we have strong brand recognition and preference,” LaCroix said.