News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 9, 2012
Lobster Advisory Council considers “structural changes” to industry

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Hugh Reynolds of Green Head Lobster Co.

Hugh Reynolds of Green Head Lobster Co. (left) talks about the current state of the industry, processor and dealer Kerin Resch (right) of Eastern Traders in Nobleboro listens.

Photo by Jessica Brophy Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Jessica Brophy

he Lobster Advisory Council’s newly-formed Profitability and Lobster Quality Committee held an all-day meeting on Wednesday, August 1, in Camden. The committee’s charge? To discuss possible changes to the fishing industry in response to this year’s low boat prices for lobster.

“July 2012 will go down in the books as a disaster,” said Bob Baines, chairman of the Department of Marine Resources’ Lobster Advisory Council. “With no end in sight, we’re here to talk about structural changes.”

Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher also addressed the meeting, acknowledging the pressure on his office to close the fishery last month, and encouraging the industry representatives to find alternatives to “government interference.”

DMR biologist Carl Wilson was blunt. “Without structural changes, we’re looking at similar problems in the future,” he said. “We’re talking about a $300 million, 100 million pound resource—we have a big structural problem, especially if landings drop.”

Wilson said harvesters should expect a “substantial second molt” soon. He also projects this year’s landings to be at 100 million pounds or more.

This year’s timing—the early onset of lobsters here in Maine, the banner season in Canada—is due to the mild, warm winter we had, said Wilson. Water temperature data shows the water was 2 to 4 degrees warmer in the winter, and water warm-up has been four to six weeks early. While Wilson said a cold winter might “reset” the timing on the industry, he also said “times have changed” and the industry needs to change with them.

“I do think this year is an anomaly,” said Wilson.

Statewide, there are more than 4,300 license-holders, with statewide landings of more than 24,000 pounds each. In Zone C, which includes Isle au Haut, Deer Isle, Stonington and along the mainland from Cape Rosier in Brooksville to Surry’s Newbury Neck, the average landings of the 756 fishermen are more than 38,000 pounds, according to information presented by Wilson during his presentation.

Changes under consideration

As Baines said during his introduction for the meeting, “all options are on the table.” The meeting attendees, more than 50 in number, did cover a lot of ground, with all of the following discussed. Everyone agreed it was important to pursue marketing and promotion. Only one idea—no fishing on Saturdays or Sundays during the summer—seemed to have general consensus.

Delayed tag issuance—for example, 100 tags in late spring, full trap limit later in season. DMR Major Alan Talbot noted during a breakout session that this would be very difficult to enforce.

Seasons—no fishing in certain months or weeks. This option seemed to be widely dismissed by harvesters, dealers and processors, as not working for anyone.

Rolling closures/reductions—Biologist Carl Wilson reminded those present that rolling closures—shutting the season down for a week or two on a schedule—would need to carefully consider which part of the state is shut down when. There are vast differences among volume up and down the coast, with Zones E, F and G landing far less than Zones A, B and C. The closures would be very difficult to time in order to keep enough product on the market to supply need, but to limit volume. There was also the question of whether any stoppage would create an artificial “glut” when over, as many harvesters saw during the unofficial tie up last month.

Gauge changes—The idea behind upping the gauge size is to reduce the number of lobsters landed. One Chebeague Island harvester, who said he had 58 years of experience hauling lobster, said he thought increasing the gauge size was the only way to fairly impact every fisherman.

Cutting fishing days out or imposing fishing curfews—no Saturday or Sunday fishing year round or seasonally, or potentially limiting fishing to four days per week during the summer. This proposal, particularly the no Saturday fishing in summer, seemed to get the most traction during discussion. Processors and dealers noted it would help clear the product and avoid a back-up of two days of fishing for Mondays. A curfew was also discussed, such as ending the fishing day at 2 or 4 p.m., perhaps slowing down landings and creating an easier-to-anticipate schedule for co-ops, dealers and processors. Baines said an afternoon curfew would help curb overtime labor costs at the Spruce Head co-op.

Proportional trap reductions—Reducing the number of traps was discussed as a way to cut down on total landings, and especially to space out or slow down lobster landings. Wilson said he believes the number of traps in the water could be cut in half and the overall catch would remain the same, though it would be slowed down. Right now, he said, in some areas there is complete saturation of the ocean bottom. The suggestion of trap reduction was not well received, generally. Many harvesters said they were wary of trap reductions.

“I might be willing to pull traps from the water,” said Deer Isle fisherman Brent Oliver during a breakout discussion. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll take traps out so someone else can put traps in.” Oliver also noted that reducing trap numbers would likely lead to captains letting sternmen go.

Baines said he would support a trap decrease, but he also stressed the need for any trap reduction to be proportional—so, if someone who fishes 800 traps (the current limit) were cut down to 400, someone who fishes 500 would be cut down to 250.

Quotas—Each harvester would have daily or yearly quotas. Harvesters would then fish and sell when they think they can get the best price. There were many concerns voiced about how enforceable this idea is, as a harvester might sell his daily quota at one dealer and then take other lobster to another dock.

Emergency shut-down powers—There was some discussion of allowing the DMR to step in and shut down the fishery for a short period of time on an emergency, case-by-case basis. Several present asked what measure or measures would be used to trigger such a shut down.

“The absolute wrong thing to do is to give me the power to shut down [the fishery],” said Keliher, who urged fishermen to work together to consider other system changes.

Best management practices—Mostly this discussion considered ways to improve the quality of the product, including better handling practices, particularly on-boat. This included suggestions of more education about proper lobster handling, making sure lobsters are in water whenever possible, and aerating or chilling holding tanks on boats. The aim is to reduce shrinkage and overhead costs, as well as increase the number of shippable lobsters.

“More shippable lobster means a higher price,” said Baines during the breakout session.

Another suggestion was introducing a grading system at the dock, which might encourage lobstermen to bring in higher-quality lobster, and reduce shrinkage from the dealer side. However, many said the increased handling from grading might harm the lobsters. The other major hurdle is time and dock space—Baines said at the Spruce Head co-op, for instance, space is very limited and it would take hours to unload at the end of the day.

Response and next steps

None of the changes seemed to get widespread support, and some present—including Cozy Harbor President and CEO John Norton—cautioned against taking “knee-jerk action” in light of what could be a single-season problem.

“The forecast of what next year will bring is premature. Don’t make decisions based on a forecast of doom and gloom,” said Norton, who suggested harvesters look for ways to cut costs and increase profitability.

Stonington fisherman John Williams expressed his concerns about substantially reducing the state’s capacity to land lobster. “We have the capability to land 100 million pounds of lobster,” said Williams. “I don’t want to lose that.”

Hugh Reynolds of Green Head Lobster Co. said one of the major problems for dealers and harvesters alike was a lack of innovation and investment in technology. “We’re all to blame here, we need to come up with new ideas and better ways to keep lobsters alive,” said Reynolds.

Toward the end of the meeting, several attendees expressed frustration with the lack of consensus. “If we’re not willing to make changes, don’t bitch next year when we’re in the same situation,” said one attendee.

Input from the LAC committee meeting will be synthesized into proposed changes and presented at the Lobster Advisory Council’s next meeting which has been The next Lobster Advisory Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday, August 16 at 4 p.m. at the Department of Transportation Building at 2 Child Street in Augusta. The meeting will be held in the Main Conference Room. Any statewide changes would need to be approved by the state legislature; any zone-specific changes would need to be voted in by zone.

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher addresses the Lobster Advisory Council’s Profitability and Lobster Quality Committee on Wednesday, August 1.

Photo by Jessica Brophy
Hugh Reynolds of Green Head Lobster Co.

Hugh Reynolds of Green Head Lobster Co. (left) talks about the current state of the industry, processor and dealer Kerin Resch (right) of Eastern Traders in Nobleboro listens.

Photo by Jessica Brophy