ROCKPORT, Maine — Maine’s lobster fishery thrived in 2015, setting a new record for statewide landings value of nearly half a billion dollars and remaining historically high in catch volume.
The uncertain future of the state’s premiere fishery nonetheless was a major topic of discussion during the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum Friday in Rockport.
The value of the statewide lobster catch last year increased by $37 million, from $458 million in 2014 to $495 million, thanks to high demand and robust supply of lobster, Maine Department of Marine Resources indicated in a prepared statement released Thursday night.
It is the sixth year in a row that the estimated dockside value of Maine’s annual lobster harvest has hit an all-time high.
The estimated statewide catch volume declined by 3 million pounds, or 2 percent, from 124 million in 2014 to 121 million last year, but it represented the fourth year in a row that landings have surpassed 120 million pounds, which never happened before 2012.
And for the first time since 2007, before the onset of the Great Recession, the average price Maine lobstermen were paid for their catch in 2015 was above $4 per pound. That average increased from $3.70 in 2014 to $4.09 in 2015, according to the Department of Marine Resources.
State officials and fishermen said Friday that the 2015 landings figures were good news for an industry that over the past half dozen years has grappled with changing ocean temperatures, increased operating expenses and reduced demand. But though economic and environmental conditions were good for the lobster industry last year, they added, some of the challenges of recent years could resurface soon.
In the case of rising ocean temperatures, they already are. The Gulf of Maine was cold last spring and summer, which helped maintain the traditional timing in late-summer and fall for when the annual fluctuation in landings and demand hit their peak.
Given the mild winter, industry officials fear this spring could be similar to 2012, when an unusually warm spring produced high catch volumes in late spring and early summer. Demand is low at that time of year, and it resulted in a steep nose-dive in prices. The average price Maine lobstermen received for their catch that year was $2.69 per pound, which was the lowest such average since 1994.
David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Friday that no one wants a repeat of what happened four years ago when fishermen caught an abnormally large amount of lobster in May and early June, just after the lobster had molted, and then had a hard time finding enough buyers for the soft-shelled product.
“When they first shed, they’re weak, and they don’t ship well for the live market,” Cousens said. “Right now, it’s looking like we’re going to have an early shed [again]. If it’s a high volume in June, we’re in deep trouble.”
Despite the 3 million pound decline in volume in Maine’s 2015 lobster haul, the health of the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine still appears to be strong, according to industry officials. The volume of Maine’s statewide annual catch hovered about 20 million pounds for more than 40 years from the end of World War II through the 1980s and has gone up steadily, though not every year, since 1990.
Scientists and fishermen are not sure why the gulf’s lobster population appears to have boomed over the past 25 years. Many believe overfishing of groundfish in the 1980s and 1990s played a role, and some have suggested that warmer water has helped by boosting growth rates and expanding habitat for younger lobsters into deeper water. Most scientists, fishermen and industry regulators agree that a sharper downturn in landings is inevitable, however.
Rick Wahle, a scientist with the University of Maine, told a group of several dozen people that some lobster population surveys in the gulf have shown that fewer lobsters are reaching the “settlement” stage, which is when young lobsters grow big enough to sink to the ocean bottom instead of floating around in the water column.
But the expansion of younger lobsters into deeper, warmer water might offset the decreases scientists have been seeing in their traditional settlement survey areas, which typically have been in shallower water that divers can easily reach, Wahle added. Scientists are trying to improve methods for conducting settlement surveys in deeper waters that are more forbidding to divers, he said.
“We’re starting to open a window on settlement in places that we haven’t been able to go before,” Wahle said.
Whatever researchers might find in deeper water, he added, scientists think lobster landings in Maine will decrease overall. As scientists adapt their various survey methods, the results eventually should provide several years of advance warning for when lobster landings might decrease by more than just a few percentage points.
“We think [the survey results] are a pretty robust indicator” for future landings, Wahle said.
Aside from settlement, there are some signs that lobster health in the Gulf of Maine is improving, according to Kathleen Reardon, lead lobster scientist for the Department of Marine Resources. She told the same group that shell disease, which can be lethal for lobsters but is harmless for humans, is on the decline in the gulf.
She said there has been a “convincing drop” in the gulf in shell disease, which has been far more prevalent in southern New England. In 2013, some southern Maine fishermen reported that about 2 percent of their catch was afflicted with the malady, but last year, the rate was less than 1 percent, she said. In eastern Maine, the disease has been even more rare.
“All [Maine lobster management] zones saw a decrease in 2015, except for Zone A, where it continued to go up a little bit,” Reardon said, referring to the Washington County zone. “But it’s still under 0.5 percent [there]. It’s really small.”
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Thursday in the agency’s statement that, although 2015 was a good year for the lobster fishery, the pitfalls it continues to face and the dominance it has on the livelihoods of so many Mainers is not something to leave unaddressed.
“While this year’s value and landings are great news for our coastal economy, we also recognize that lobster represents more than 81 percent of the overall [$631 million] value of our commercial fisheries,” Keliher said. “It shows that we all must be working hard to build and sustain our commercial fisheries and to create more diverse opportunity, be it with traditional commercial fisheries or in expanding the role of aquaculture. This work is critical to ensure we can adapt to changes in landings and value in future years.”