Lobster Madness

This year, 2012, is the weirdest I can recall in 14 years of writing about Maine’s commercial fisheries. It is stranger than 2008, when the economy tanked and took the price of lobster down with it, and more unusual than 2009, when the second half of the scallop season was nearly canceled and emergency closures were enacted.

And that’s even without considering the elver season this spring, when prices skyrocketed for the juvenile eels. I’m just talking about the 2012 lobster season. What’s been going on this year with the state’s largest fishery is just bizarre.

In February, Maine Department of Marine Resources released landings figures for 2011 that indicated, for the first time ever, the annual lobster harvest in Maine topped 100 million pounds. For decades, until they started rising in 1990, Maine’s annual lobster landings hovered between 16 million and 23 million pounds, which is one sixth to one fourth of what they were last year.

Surpassing the 100 million mark drew new attention to a perennial (and unanswered) question in Maine: How high can landings go? The average price lobstermen earned for their catch last year ($3.19 per pound, considered relatively low at the time, compared to $4.63 in 2005) has been cited as a possible reason why lobstermen fished harder last year, to make up in volume what they had lost in unit price since the mid-2000s.

Then soft-shell lobsters started turning up in the Gulf of Maine in large numbers in the spring, months ahead of when they usually do. Soft-shell lobsters, or shedders, may taste good and be relatively easy to catch but they don’t ship well. As a result, they tend to fetch a lower price than more durable lobsters with hardened shells. Still, lobstermen did what they usually do when soft-shells start appearing in large quantities on the bottom – they got their gear in the water to fish while the fishing was good.

But the push to fish early was complicated by another problem – a backlog of trap tags that DMR requires lobstermen to put on their gear. The manufacturer, Stoffel Seals of Congers, N.Y., experienced an equipment breakdown that delayed orders by more than four weeks, though the firm’s contract with DMR (which expires later this year) requires it to fill orders within 15 days. DMR created exemptions so lobstermen who had waited more than four weeks could get their traps in the water without facing penalties.

Nonetheless, fishing effort took off in earnest. An unusually high number of lobsters were caught, leading to a glut of shedders on the market. Fishermen caught lobsters faster than dealers or processors could handle them, and the price fishermen got for their catch plummeted to less than $2 per pound. It has recovered a little bit in recent weeks, but not by much. The last time Maine fishermen were paid an annual average price of around $2 per pound was in 1981.

Feeling alarmed, about 50 lobster industry and DMR officials met Aug. 1 in Camden to talk about various market and natural conditions that are believed to have contributed to the glut and price drop, and about what might be done to improve things. That same day, the general public found out PETA had planted a coded message in a brick at Fenway Park to protest the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland.

Supposed animal cruelty allegations aside, the timing of the high landings in the late spring and early summer has been a significant part of the problem the industry is facing this year [check out this link to hear an interview on the topic with me and Nova Scotian fisherman Ashton Spinney on CBC radio]. Canadian processors, which usually have the capacity to handle Maine lobsters in autumn when landings in the state are high and Canadian landings are low, were busy this spring with a large volume of hard-shell lobsters caught in Canadian waters. They could not take on the high volume of shedders coming out of Maine.

Now that it is more than a week into August, the supply of Canadian lobsters has decreased and processors in the maritime provinces can accommodate lobsters from Maine – which is what has led to the most tense development in the fishery of all: Canadian fishermen protesting and blockading those processors to prevent them from accepting deliveries of the low-cost lobster from Maine. Incidents in the past week have included at least two trucks of Maine lobster being turned away from New Brunswick processing plants without being able to unload, and irate fishermen dumping traps in the office of a federal fisheries minister in Fredericton.

[New Brunswick fishermen have a history of histrionics and even violence when it comes to showing their displeasure with fishery conditions, I found out from a Maine lobster industry official. For details about what happened in Shippagan, N.B., in 2003, read this CBC article.]

A 10-day injunction granted Thursday, August 9, by a New Brunswick judge is expected to help calm the Canadian situation down, officials have said, but a long-term agreement between Canadian officials and the protesters has yet to be accepted. I doubt lobster fishery conditions will return to normal all that quickly. If they do, that fact will be added to the list of odd developments in the strangest Maine lobster fishing season in recent memory.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.