The lobster industry to which President Donald Trump is directing financial aid is coming off a six-year stretch during which it benefited from historic levels of demand and healthy prices for its catch. The hefty hauls and high prices came even as the industry faced a number of challenges beyond its control, namely climate change, federal laws that protect whales and international trade disputes.
But given the unpredictable nature of lawsuits filed by environmentalists, punitive tariffs that have limited their exports, and, most significantly, how long the global COVID-19 pandemic might last, lobstermen and industry officials are not assuming that 2020 will be another year of good hauls and high prices for Maine’s signature $485 million fishery.
“There’s no such thing as a new normal yet,” Patrick Keliher, the head of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, told a group of lobstermen Monday during an online video meeting. “Everybody’s crystal ball is telling them something different. What is clear to me is there is zero consensus on what we should do.”
In recent years — prior to the ongoing pandemic that shut down much of the global economy in late winter and early spring, when many lobstermen typically do not fish — Maine’s 6,000 or so commercial lobster fishermen have benefited from continued demand for their catch, despite legal challenges over the industry’s impact on whales and trade policies promoted by President Donald Trump that have reduced overseas demand for Maine seafood.
Only seven years ago, in 2013, the total value of lobster harvested statewide in Maine was $370 million, at that point Maine’s highest-ever total.
Since then, the fishery has only grown more valuable, and the annual catch has twice surpassed half a billion dollars — in 2015 and again in 2016.
President Donald Trump is directing the Department of Agriculture to provide U.S. lobster fishermen with financial assistance to make up for lost income from Chinese tariffs.
Maine lobstermen last year harvested $485 million worth of lobster, the fourth-highest annual statewide value ever, and enjoyed their highest-ever average per-pound price of $4.82. That price represented a 19 percent increase over 2018’s average price of $4.05 per pound, and a 23 percent increase over the average price of $3.92 per pound in 2017.
Prices paid to lobstermen, however, can be extremely fickle, and fishermen have at times caught larger volumes to make up for lower prices. But those larger volumes aren’t a given long-term.
Scientists have said that dramatically higher catch volumes — from around 20 million pounds a year in the 1980s to more than 100 million pounds every year this past decade — likely have been made possible by warming water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, but are not expected to last as those temperatures continue to rise beyond lobsters’ comfort level.
Higher catch volumes have been key to the fishery’s steady increase in value over the past 30 years, and they’ve helped especially in the past decade as annual average prices have swung from below $3 per pound to last year’s record average of $4.82. Prior to 2012, when an unexpected surge in early-summer landings created a glut and pushed the average price down to $2.63, Maine lobstermen had not had an annual average per-pound price below $2.70 in nearly 20 years, since 1994.
Maine fishermen hauled record volumes of lobster in 2012 and again in 2013, when the average price again was under $3 per pound, but their experience with low dock prices those years has been on their minds and those of state regulators this spring.
The virtual standstill of the global economy — brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic that closed restaurants around the world and brought international shipping and travel to a near halt — has trumped concerns about whale lawsuits, possible new restrictions on the gear lobstermen can use and trade disputes.
The vast majority of Maine lobster is harvested in late summer and early fall, which so far has allowed the fishery to mostly escape the most immediate effects of the pandemic, but fishermen are concerned that if the global economy remains on life support, they again will face the prospects of spending more money on fuel and bait than they would make off their catch, as they did at times in 2012 and 2013.
State regulators did not intervene in those years to try to boost the price — and cautioned fishermen against pressuring each other not to fish, which could have violated antitrust laws — but Keliher said the state now has more options under Gov. Janet Mills’ coronavirus-related emergency powers.
Keliher said the state legally could restrict harvesting to a few days a week, or could adopt temporary tighter catch restrictions so that the supply does not outpace demand — but he added that he is not inclined to take any such action this year, though he has not yet ruled it out.
“I think it is an especially slippery slope and would set a bad precedent,” Keliher told fishermen Monday about possible government intervention.
Bar Harbor lobsterman James Hanscom and others told Keliher they would prefer that the state stay out of any efforts to adjust the market, and to let the industry come up with strategies on its own.
“I really think we can handle it ourselves, between harvesters and dealers,” Hanscom said during that Monday conversation. “I just think it can be worked out.”
Now, Trump’s order means lobstermen have to decide whether they want to take advantage of potentially millions of dollars in federal subsidies.