ELLSWORTH – For decades, lobster has been the symbol of Maine’s fishing industry, but at the moment the microscopic coronavirus is taking center stage.
As recently as Feb. 27, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the state. By noon Wednesday, the CDC reported 142 confirmed cases in Maine and the state was on virtual lockdown. All those who could work from home were staying away from their offices, “non-essential” businesses were shuttered and bars and restaurants were closed except for takeout and delivery business.
While the economic news has been bad for all sectors of the economy, the fishing industry has been particularly hard-hit.
On March 20, Governor Janet Mills wrote to President Donald Trump seeking “immediate assistance” for the Maine fishing industry. Harvesters, she said, “have only limited opportunities within their communities to sell small quantities … in hopes to earn just enough money to buy weekly necessities.” Likewise, she said dealers and processors reported there were “no markets for the product already in inventory.”
In her letter, Mills asked Trump for extensive help for the Maine fishing industry including: direct financial assistance to struggling harvesters, dealers and processors; direct subsidies to the seafood industry; operating loans or “loan deferments” for industry members; and “modification to existing programs to make them more accessible to fishing and seafood businesses.”
The problem is especially acute in the lobster industry, according to Rock Alley, president of the Maine Lobstering Union Local 207. Lobstermen are “not able to move much product,” Alley said Monday. “There’s no market, no price.”
As of late last week, Mills said in her letter, the boat price for lobsters was as low as $2 per pound, when harvesters could find a dealer to take their catch. Alley said union members saw a boat price of about $2.50 but that some harvesters were selling their catch “by the side of the road” in hopes they could get another dollar per pound for their lobsters.
Alley said the union-owned cooperative marketing operation, Lobster 207, was also experiencing severely reduced demand.
“The only market for us is online sales,” he said. “There’s no demand because the restaurants are closed.”
It isn’t only lobstermen who are feeling the pinch. Last week, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher postponed the beginning of the elver fishing season, scheduled to open last Sunday, for a minimum of two weeks. When the fishery will open is unknown but when, or if, it does, elver harvesters are likely to see sharply reduced prices.
Last year, elvers were a $20 million fishery in Maine — the state’s second most lucrative — and the average price for elvers was about $2,000 per pound. This year, Mills said in her letter, the anticipated average price was likely to be about $200 per pound. The 90 percent decline is reflective of a projected drop in demand in China, where virtually all the tiny juvenile eels landed in Maine are shipped to be grown to market size in aquaculture facilities.
Another spring fishery, the Northern Gulf of Maine scallop fishery slated to open April 1, also faces significantly reduced demand and, consequently, price reductions of as much as 50 percent, Mills said, traceable in large part to the forced closure of restaurants.
Like the wild harvest fisheries, the aquaculture industry is also feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Maine shellfish farmers dealing with the disappearance of the restaurant buyers who took much of their product are turning to direct marketing of their oysters, mussels, scallops and clams.
On Monday, the University of Maine Sea Grant program sent a flyer to oyster growers with comprehensive advice about directly marketing their shellfish online, at farm stands or farmers markets or right at the farm.
“There definitely appears to be growing interest among aquaculturists and wild harvesters alike,” in directly marketing their products, DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said Monday. DMR worked on producing the flyer together with Sea Grant, the University of Maine and NOAA Fisheries. “We will also be sharing it and building on that information in the near future,” Nichols said.
Many fishermen aren’t waiting. A grassroots organization called “Maine’s Working Waterfront-Seafood Connect” is running direct-to-consumer events where fishermen can bring their catch to a central location and deal directly with buyers. Several Hancock County lobstermen are listed on the Seafood Connect Facebook page as sources for lobster.
Any fisherman who is “legal” may participate, according to organizer Ali Farrell of Camden.
So far, the farmers market-style events are scheduled for 10 a.m. in the Shaw’s parking lot in Rockland on Saturday and the Renys parking lot in Belfast on Sunday. Another event is slated for Ellsworth, with the details yet to be determined. Farrell said Renys has offered the use of its parking lots in Ellsworth, Camden, Belfast and Portland for the markets.
Maine Sea Grant is also helping shellfish farmers deal with the effects of the market shutdown.
In addition to sending out information about various state economic aid programs available to business, the extension service is leading oyster and other shellfish farmers to a website created by the university that includes a comprehensive list of farm products and pick-ups around the state — extension.umaine.edu/ariculture/farm-product-and-pickup-directory — that lists direct seafood marketing opportunities.
The coronavirus pandemic is also affecting large aquaculture projects as well as individual fishermen.
On Monday, Whole Oceans, the company that is building a land-based recirculating aquaculture system to raise Atlantic salmon on the site of the former Verso mill in Bucksport, announced that while the current pandemic made timing uncertain, it still planned to break ground for its new facility this summer and open an office in Bucksport “later this year” if at all possible.
Farther Downeast, plans for the development of a large land-based recirculating facility to raise kingfish in Jonesport are proceeding without delay, according to Kingfish Zeeland spokeswoman Dianna Fletcher.
Because of coronavirus-related limits on air travel between the Netherlands, the company’s home base, and the United States, Kingfish Zeeland canceled community “informational meetings” with company founder Ohad Maimon that were originally scheduled for March 19 and March 25. Otherwise, Fletcher said, “there are no project delays.”