Maine’s 2017 lobster harvest is on pace to hit its lowest value this decade, due to an unfavorable combination of a dwindling catch and falling prices, according to lobster industry officials.
The statewide haul for this year could plummet below 100 million pounds for the first time since 2010 — a decrease of more than 30 million pounds from 2016, said David Cousens, president of Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
“That’s a huge drop,” he said.
At the same time, the prevailing price for lobster is down from 2016, which generated a record high of $533 million in annual gross revenue for the statewide fleet.
“This year we’re having is one of the worst we’ve had” in recent memory, Cousens said.
In recent individual years, lobstermen have dealt with decreases in either price or in catch volumes. But not since 2001 have both the statewide catch and average price paid to fishermen dropped from the previous year.
Scientists are not sure why lobstermen seem to be catching fewer lobster than they did last year, when the statewide catch hit a record of 130 million pounds. Some lobster population surveys suggest there has been a decline of young lobsters in the Gulf of Maine, but there are other indicators that older (but not yet ready to harvest) lobsters are doing fine.
The drop in price is more clear, though why demand appears to have declined is not. Cousens said his fishing income is down by about 50 percent from last year.
Rockland lobster dealer Jamie Steeves recently said his volume of business was down 40 percent from a year before. On two consecutive days last month, he operated in the red because he wasn’t buying and selling enough lobster to meet his daily expenses.
“That never happens this time of year,” Steeves said, noting that September typically is one of the most productive months for Maine lobstermen.
Prices offered to fishermen this September were down roughly 20 percent along the entire coast, Cousens said. Other lobstermen say prices have crept back up to around $4 per pound or higher this month but still lag last year’s prices by 70 cents or more. The average statewide price the past two years has been a few cents above $4 per pound, which is a historically good price.
To further complicate matters, fuel prices and bait costs are higher too, Cousens said. Current diesel prices in Maine are around $2.70 per gallon, up from $2.38 a year ago, according to AAA.
“I don’t have a clue what’s going on,” Cousens said. “People are very upset.”
Scientists are likewise puzzled by the disparity between the decreasing number of young lobsters settling on the ocean bottom and the increase in the number of harvest-size lobsters showing up in lobster traps.
“We’re calling it The Great Disconnect,” said Rick Wahle, a lobster scientist at University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in South Bristol.
Wahle said annual surveys show that fewer younger lobsters are settling to the ocean bottom in the Gulf of Maine. Lobsters are born quite small and live floating in the water for the first few weeks of their lives before they are large enough to settle on the ocean floor.
Generally, it takes 7 years or so for a lobster to grow to legal harvest size.
The declining lobster settlement survey results do not necessarily mean the overall lobster population in the Gulf of Maine is shrinking, Wahle said.
As ocean temperatures have increased, juvenile lobsters could be settling further away from shore, in water deeper than where the settlement surveys are conducted. Researchers have expanded their survey sites to deeper water, Wahle said, but don’t have historical data from those sites to compare to recent survey results.
But the gulf’s overall young lobster population actually could be dropping, he added. The heaviest catches have been shifting east along the coast the past few decades, with Hancock County having surpassed Cumberland and Knox counties in landings volume. That could indicate a temperature-driven migration from warmer water further west.
Continued warming could reduce lobster survival throughout the entire gulf.
If fewer lobsters are surviving to the settlement stage, their food sources could also be shifting further north outside the gulf or they’re falling victim to more predators such as black sea bass, Wahle said. Additionally, the increasing occurrence of shell disease could be adversely affecting reproduction rates.
“We’re not at all at a steady state with this fishery,” Wahle said of the myriad environmental changes lobster face.
But there are other indicators that the catch decline might not last long, according to Bob Bayer of the University of Maine Lobster Institute. He said there is still plenty of fishing yet to be done this fall, and many fishermen are throwing back a lot of lobsters just under the minimum legal harvest size.
“They’re still catching loads of small lobsters,” Bayer said Wednesday. “I think it may be a one-year thing, but it is hard to tell.”