Father and son Mike and Roger Sargent of Sullivan unload their catch from the 42-foot Seven Angels in mid-January at the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-op. Mike Sargent was struck by both the number of lobster boats and volume of gear 30 miles offshore. PHOTO BY LETITIA BALDWIN

Lower lobster catch, prices may be wakeup call for fishery

The storms and bitter cold that came in late December were a fitting close to a difficult year for Maine’s lobster industry and, perhaps, an evidence-based harbinger of coming tempests.

In 2016, Maine fishermen landed some 130.8 million pounds of lobster worth more than $547 million. Both figures were the highest ever recorded. Landings showed a rebound from 2015’s 122 million pounds, the only break in a recent string of record-setting landings totals. And the price was good.

Despite a 7 percent increase in landings from the previous year, the average boat price in 2016 was $4.18 per pound, just 4 cents less than in 2015.

The picture in 2017 wasn’t so rosy. In October, many lobstermen said their catches were down by as much 20 to 25 percent and some dealers reported drops of as much as 40 percent in the Midcoast area. Prices were lower too.

In Cutler, far Downeast, one fisherman reported that the October boat price was just $2.75 per pound, but along much of the coast the boat price was within pennies either way of $4 per pound, but sharply lower than at the same time of year in 2016.

Jacob Knowles, a “fifth- or sixth-generation” Winter Harbor lobsterman, said recently that he has been “fishing my whole life, since I could walk.” Since graduating from Sumner Memorial High School in 2011, he has been fishing for lobsters full time, selling his catch to the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-op. Over the past few years he has experienced the fluctuations in the market firsthand.

In 2017, Knowles said, “the Co-op as a whole dropped off quite a lot in poundage.” Despite that, the price fishermen received for their lobsters averaged about $1 per pound less than in 2016, when landings were the highest ever recorded.

When the lobster supply drops, Knowles said, “it’s common sense the price has got to go up, but this year proved common sense wrong.”

With prices already lower than expected, last fall the Maine lobster industry received an unwanted early Christmas gift from the Canadian government.

While the United States pursues a policy of dismantling multilateral international trade agreements, last September, Canada signed a free trade agreement with the European Union, the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement Implementation Act (CETA), that had a direct impact on Maine fishermen. The trade pact immediately eliminated an 8 percent EU tariff on live lobsters shipped from Canada, but not from the United States. Tariffs on processed and frozen lobster from Canada, currently between 16 and 20 percent, also will be phased out over the next three to five years.

Currently, the European Union is the world’s largest importer of North American lobster, with China close behind. The 28-member EU imported more than $150 million in U.S. lobster in 2016, with another $140 million worth from Canada.

With the stroke of a pen, the price of Maine lobsters rose 8 percent in the EU as compared with Canadian lobsters. Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, pointed out the obvious consequences of the trade deal last fall in The Ellsworth American.

“This trade agreement gives Canada a huge leg up in the European marketplace,” Tselikis said. “Here we are outsourcing jobs because of the lack of a trade policy.”

International trade policy is hardly the only issue facing the lobster industry. Fishermen face the lingering issue of the cost, and supply, of bait.

During 2016, herring — the bait preferred by most Maine lobstermen — was in short supply. Prices climbed sky high, with lobstermen paying as much as 60 cents per pound for salt fish. Herring prices were lower in early 2017, about half what they were a year earlier, and other bait, including local alewives in the spring, was reasonably plentiful.

But lower is a relative term and so is plentiful.

At the start of the 2015 season, lobstermen only paid about 18 cents per pound for herring. Maine boats also are allowed to land only a small portion of the stock of herring found close to shore and just a tiny portion (about 172,000 pounds) of the vast menhaden resource off the North Atlantic coast. In Northeast waters last year, the total allowable catch for menhaden was about 440 million pounds.

Long before the lobster fishery exploded (through the 1980s landings averaged around 21 million pounds and first topped the 30 million-pound mark in 1991) alewives were a popular bait — fresh in spring, salted later in the year. After a long decline, alewife stocks are on the rebound thanks to the removal of dams and restoration of streams in places like Penobscot, Surry and elsewhere and some lobstermen are testing frozen alewives as bait when supplies of herring and menhaden are low.

Perhaps the biggest question for the future is the impact of climate change on the lobster industry.

For the past several years, scientists have reported that, while ocean temperatures are rising all around the globe, water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are rising faster than almost anywhere else.

A 2015 study by scientists from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Bigelow Laboratory and elsewhere analyzing sea surface temperatures concluded that over the past 10 years the Gulf of Maine warmed faster than 99.9 percent of the global ocean. Another recent study concluded that summer in the Gulf of Maine is longer and stronger than ever.

At the same time, University of Maine marine scientist Rick Wahle, who measures the population of baby lobsters in the Gulf of Maine every year, recently reported that monitoring sites from New Brunswick to Cape Cod had some of the lowest levels of juvenile lobster settlement to the sea floor since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

The decline in baby lobsters could be an early warning of what might be a decline in future lobster harvests, though Knowles said fishermen are seeing “as many small lobsters as ever” in their traps. Lobsters reach minimum legal harvest size at about seven years of age — so it will take a while to find out whether bait and trade agreements are just the least of the Maine lobster industry’s problems.

Whatever the effects of bait prices, international trade rules and climate change, to Knowles the biggest problem facing the lobster industry right now is that there are “too many people in it.”

With virtually no licenses available to new participants in other fisheries, Knowles said, lobstering is “the only thing left” for young people who want to get into the fishing industry.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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