CASTINE — As of early Wednesday morning, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention had yet to report a single confirmed or presumed case of COVID-19, the respiratory infection caused by the coronavirus, in eastern Maine, but the lobster industry is already feeling the impacts of the global pandemic.
The spread of the disease in China and Europe has cut the demand for lobsters, and reductions in overseas airline flights has made it difficult to ship live lobsters to fill what demand exists. The shutdown of the cruise industry, large events and restaurant closings have all contributed to a sharp drop in the demand for lobsters and lower prices across the board as dealers are unable to sell the lobsters they have bought from fishermen.
On Monday, one Hancock County lobster dealer said the boat price paid to lobstermen had dropped to $4 per pound, and at least one major Maine lobster dealer had begun layoffs of employees as its export business dropped.
“The market is really poor,” Stonington lobsterman Hilton Turner said Tuesday afternoon.
Over the weekend, lobster processors in Canada called on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to close the winter lobster fishery in Nova Scotia and other parts of Eastern Canada because of a glut of unmarketable lobsters. Apparently, the Maine Department of Marine Resources has been facing the same kind of pressure.
On Monday, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher issued a message to the lobster industry calling on dealers and harvesters to work together to help reduce an oversupply of lobsters.
While DMR is “assessing the many challenges,” Keliher said, “(D)espite rumors to the contrary, I do not have any immediate plans to close any commercial fishery in response to the coronavirus.” Keliher reminded fishermen that currently he does not have any authority to close the lobster fishery, but that industry members can, and should, act.
“In the short-term, harvesters and dealers must put aside their differences and must actively communicate with each other about the realities of the market; harvesters must refrain from landing product if there is no market for it; dealers must refrain from buying product for which there is no market in order to minimize loss associated with inventory that can’t be sold,” Keliher said.
The uncertainties arising from the cornoavirus will likely affect other fisheries.
The state’s elver fishing season opens on Sunday, and virtually the entire harvest is shipped to buyers in China. Over the past few years, elver prices have topped $2,000 per pound with short-term peaks of $2,800 per pound or more.
“The market will not be where it was the last two years,” Mitchell Feigenbaum said Tuesday, though he could not predict just how serious the impact will be. “So many things are changing every day.”
Feigenbaum runs one of the nation’s largest elver exporters and is a member of the committee that advises the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on regulation of the fishery.
As the coronavirus situation develops, he said, the logistics of collecting elvers and holding them for export may become more complicated. The longer overseas shipments are delayed, the more expensive it becomes for dealers because of increased “shrinkage.” The longer elvers are held in dealers’ tanks, the more of them are likely to die or deteriorate to unshippable condition.
Despite the difficult market, Feigenbaum is “optimistic” that harvesters will still receive a decent price for their landings.
“There’s enough competition in the market to overcome any effort to artificially suppress the price,” he said.
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said that despite the drop in sales to restaurants, Maine oyster farmers had boosted their direct retail and online sales significantly. Coronavirus restrictions have had one other positive impact on oyster sales, at least so far, he said.
Because most European oysters are flown to the United States as cargo in passenger planes, the reduction in flights from Europe has significantly curtailed oyster imports, to the benefit of domestic producers.