ROCKPORT — Maine’s lobster landings put more than a half-billion dollars in lobstermen’s pockets last year, but some fishermen and scientists see clouds on what looks like a sparkling horizon.
Last week, just in time for the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, the Department of Marine Resources released its preliminary 2015 commercial fisheries landings and the news was astonishing.
According to DMR, the value of Maine’s commercially harvested marine resources topped $600 million in overall value in 2015. The total, $631,768,531, was an all-time high and an increase of more than $33 million over the previous record, set in 2014.
The biggest increases came in the state’s lobster fishery, where the total landed value of the catch jumped by more than $37 million and the average boat price received by lobstermen increased by more than 10 percent, from $3.70 per pound in 2014 to $4.09 per pound last year.
At $495,433,635, the overall value of Maine’s lobster fishery set another record. Factoring in bonuses paid to harvesters as reported by 11 of Maine’s 19 lobster co-ops, the overall landed value of Maine’s lobster fishery reached $510,680,048.
While the industry enjoyed a half-billion-dollar lobsterpalooza, some fishermen and lobster scientists saw clouds on the horizon.
Speaking at the forum last Friday as fishermen gathered for the annual meeting of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, David Cousens, the organization’s longtime president, warned that the mild winter weather and warm water in the Gulf of Maine could lead to an early season, with large numbers of shedders — soft shelled lobsters — arriving in June instead of late July or early August when the demand for live lobsters from Maine tourists is high.
According to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, the waters off the Maine coast are about 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron said that scientists are predicting that there’s at least “a 50-50 chance” that the season will be an early one.
If that happens, harvesters could see the price of lobsters sink like a trap pushed off a boat. Four years ago, the season was early and the boat price dropped by 16 percent.
When the shedders arrive in large numbers, the lobster industry depends on demand from the millions of tourists who visit Maine in the summer to buy them. If the lobsters arrive before the tourists come in large numbers, lobstermen have to sell their catch to Canadian processors, but most of them aren’t ready to buy Maine lobsters in June. And while Maine’s processing industry is growing it is small compared to its Canadian counterpart.
“What it means,” said David Cousens, president of the MLA, “is we won’t have a home for that product in June.”
There are other troubling signs.
Last year, lobster landings totaled 121,083,418 pounds, making 2015 the fourth year in a row, and the fourth year ever, in which Maine lobster harvesters hauled in more than 120 million pounds. That was the second year in a row that landings declined from their record 127.8 million pounds in 2013.
DMR’s chief lobster scientist, Kathleen Reardon, also raised some questions about the impact of rising water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine on the lobster resource.
According to Reardon, while the lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank were neither depleted nor being overfished, but the latest spring survey reflected a decline in the numbers of post-larval lobsters that settle to the sea floor to grow to maturity. What is not clear, Reardon said, is whether there are fewer lobsters, or whether the warmer water means that some lobster larvae are settling in deeper water or that lobsters are spawning later in the year.
And according to Rick Wahle, of the Darling Marine Center, “warmer water hastens the molt and predicts an earlier fishery, but also opens new habitat for lobsters, which may contribute to a massive increase in abundance.”