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Maine’s first probable case of the new coronavirus was only diagnosed on Thursday, but the global pandemic has already left its mark on the Maine lobster industry in the form of shrinking demand and dropping prices.
Unfortunately, there’s no end in sight to the economic disruption caused by the virus, according to Annie Tselikis, the executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association.
“The market situation right now is real. There is not a lot of demand,” she said Friday. “You’re seeing this across all commodities. It’s not just lobster. It’s not just seafood. Uncertainty is challenging for any industry and any movement of goods.”
Problems stemming from coronavirus seemed to begin in January, after the spread of the virus paused Canadian charter flights to Asia during a time that is usually very busy for lobster sales because of Chinese New Year celebrations, according to Bloomberg News. Because of that, thousands of pounds of unsold lobster flooded North American markets, causing wholesale prices to drop.
According to research company Urner Barry, which has tracked food prices for more than 150 years, prices for “New England halves” — a whole, live 1.5 pound lobster — have dropped nearly 20 percent over the last two months. As of March 12, the average wholesale price for New England halves stood at $7.55, which is the lowest price since at least 2016, according to Liz Cuozzo, seafood market reporter at Urner Barry. For comparison, the average price for New England halves was $10.70 a year ago, she said.
“There’s just so much uncertainty in the market right now, with shutdowns in China and Europe,” Cuozzo said, adding that this time of year is historically quiet in the New England lobster fishery. “The coronavirus is not helping matters at all. And without an outlet for product going to China or Europe, prices have been under pressure and softening.”
For perspective, the Maine lobster catch was worth more than $485 million in 2019, the most recent period that financial statistics are available. And even though early spring is traditionally a slow time in the lobster industry, it doesn’t mean that it stops, Tselikis said. In normal years, lobster wholesalers and other businesses in Maine would be buying lobsters out of Canada and moving processed lobster products as well.
But so far, at least, 2020 is far from normal. Although there are two lobster fishing areas open at this time of year in Nova Scotia, lobster buyers and processors in that province want to immediately stop all fishing because coronavirus has “crushed the market,” according to the Canadian Broadcasting Co. One industry group is asking the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to issue an order to shut down harvesting there.
“The market demand is just really, really not good,” Tselikis said.
She gave a long list of examples, including a reduction in cruises, which are “large programmed buyers” for lobsters; reduced traffic at casinos, which are also large volume purchasers; and uncertainty around college and high school graduations, which can be a busy time for festive events such as lobster bakes. As well, Italy, which is under a nationwide lockdown because of the new coronavirus, is usually an important market for lobster in Europe.
“A lot of things we take for granted, that’s all being impacted right now,” she said.
Lobsterman Ted Spurling of Islesford said that he doesn’t have any traps in the water right now, but the guys who do have noticed in January that the prices started to soften. With the current global realities, including the stock market drop, he doesn’t expect that prices will stabilize soon.
“Everybody’s in turmoil,” he said.
Lobster industry officials are beginning to have conversations with Maine’s congressional delegation about ways to potentially minimize the pain of the global market contraction, Tselikis said, adding that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and her staff all attended the Maine Fishermen’s Forum last weekend in Rockport.
“Right now, we’re taking this day by day and trying to see what the real impact is,” Tselikis said.
Something that is giving her hope is that challenges over the last 20 years have shown that the Maine lobster industry is resilient. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the economic downturn in 2008 and the lobster glut in 2012 all took a toll on the industry, which came back from each stronger, she said.
“This industry is very good at solving problems,” Tselikis said. “There is a certain amount of resiliency that we’re very capable of in this business, but the issue is, we don’t know how long this is going to last.”
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