By Penelope Overton
Portland Press Herald
ELLSWORTH — The state’s lobster catch is “way off” so far this year, according to Maine’s top fishing regulator.
As of the end of September, Maine fishermen had landed less than 50 million pounds of lobster, said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. That is 40 percent less than what had been landed by September 2018, and 38 percent below the five-year average.
While that is certainly bad news for Maine lobstermen as a group, in some areas the decline in landings has been less drastic.
“We’re down for the year, but we’re definitely not down 40 percent,” Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-op manager Marc Nighman said Tuesday afternoon.
According to Nighman, through the end of September the co-op’s fishermen have seen landings drop “maybe 20 percent” from what they were a year ago but the news isn’t all bad. The shortage of lobsters has driven the price up about 20 percent, so Cranberry Isles lobstermen are in about the same place economically as they were in 2018.
Keliher told the American Lobster Management Board on Monday that some of the year-to-date decline could be because lobsters molted late this year. The bulk of Maine’s lobster fleet catches new shell lobsters — whose new shells are just starting to firm up after they have shed their old ones.
“Maine lobster landings are down significantly, below 50 million pounds to date,” Keliher told the board. “Our landings are way off. Now that doesn’t mean the sky is falling. That means we certainly had a very big delay in the shed.”
The shed usually happens sometime in early July and signals that Maine’s peak lobster fishing season will start in about a month, but the exact time varies every year. A late shed means Maine lobstermen could still be in the middle of peak fishing season rather than at its end.
But Keliher told the board that a late shed alone cannot explain numbers this low.
“That is certainly not the entire reason we are having significant declines,” he said.
Keliher didn’t speculate about other possible reasons for the decline in landings this year, but scientists have predicted that rising water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99 percent of the rest of the ocean, could spell the end of the historic lobster boom in as soon as five years.
The cost and availability of bait may have played a role, too, DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said. When federal regulators cut herring quotas, fishermen prepared for a bait shortage. Some delayed setting their traps, while others switched up their bait.
It is unclear how the decline in volume is playing out for fishermen or the industry as a whole because boat prices can vary so much during different times of the year, across different regions of the state, and from one fisherman to the next.
“It’s definitely been a mixed bag for lobstermen this year,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “While landings have been slow everywhere, stronger prices have helped to offset some of the loss of volume for many fishermen. And the slow pace of landings has lightened demand for bait so we seem to have dodged the worst of the anticipated bait crisis. There have been reports of a few good runs of lobster along the coast this fall, so we are hoping for a strong finish to the season.”
This month, the boat price has ranged from as little as $5 a pound for new shell lobsters to $7.50 a pound for hard shells, but that is by no means an average. Year over year, the wholesale price of a 2-pound hard shell select lobster has increased 13 percent, according to Urner Barry, a trade research group. Local retailers show live lobsters selling for about $9 per pound.
According to Nighman, the rise in prices his fishermen have received is a “perfect example” of what happens when the laws of economics are applied to the lobster fishery.
“Even though we’ve lost most of sales to China, they’ve created enough market that supply and demand” are affecting lobster price, he said.
In the state’s easternmost fishing region, lobsterman John Drouin said he started to set traps about a month later than normal this year, which may help explain why his catch is down about 25 percent. But he didn’t do it because of a late shed.
“I wouldn’t say the shed was late,” Drouin said. “Most of our lobsters are very hard, meaning that they shed some time ago, but were just never trapped. Get lots of soft shell lobsters with barnacles on them. That means they are just sitting there.”
The Cutler fisherman decided to postpone the start of his season because he did not think the small catches he had been logging in the last few springs would cover the cost of bait in a year when scarcity of fresh herring was driving prices up.
He doesn’t know how he is doing year-to-date on price, but said he is doing well on both volume and value in October. He still has seven weeks left in his typical fishing season and hopes to make up in price now what he lost in volume earlier.
The state won’t release year-end landings data until March, Nichols said.
Last year, Maine lobstermen landed 119.6 million pounds of lobster and valued at $485 million. When adding in the industry’s voluminous international supply chain, economists believe lobstering pumps almost $1.5 billion a year into the Maine economy every year.
Keliher revealed the low landings Monday to highlight the urgent need to complete the 2020 lobster stock assessment on time and push regional regulators to adopt a set of standardized fishing rules throughout New England to protect the species.
Regulators have been preoccupied with their work to protect the endangered right whale from deadly entanglement in fishing gear, especially the buoy lines used by lobstermen, without crippling the region’s most valuable fishery.
Reporter Stephen Rappaport contributed to this report.