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Deer Isle, Isle au Haut and Stonington, Maine.
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by Jessica Brophy
As the top lobster port in the state, with more than $45 million of income last year, all the talk in town is about one thing: the price of lobster. Many fishermen on the Island tied up Wednesday, July 11, due to the low price, according to several fishermen.
Ronnie Trundy, manager of Stonington Lobster Co-op, said boat price for shedders Tuesday fell another fifty cents to $1.50 and $4.25 for hard-shell, plus the co-op’s bonus.
While the price has fallen, Trundy said he has heard from his buyer that some Canadian processors are starting to reopen. “Once they get caught up, the demand should go up,” said Trundy. However, he acknowledges it could take awhile to work through the lobsters in holding, and processors “are not going to pay any more than they have to” for lobsters.
He said it’s hard to tell how much of the glut—the over-abundance of soft-shell lobster—has worked its way through the system.
It’s not just the talk of Stonington, the situation is affecting fishermen statewide. On Monday, July 9, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher issued a statement about low boat prices.
“The Department will not be closing the lobster fishery. Based on the concerns that have been raised by the industry, I have reviewed our statutory authorities and they do not allow us to shut down the fishery for economic reasons. We have heard that fishermen are seeking to impose a de facto shutdown of the fishery and coercing others into complying by threatening to cut off their gear. The State will not tolerate any trap molestation, and any such actions will be met with targeted and swift enforcement or other appropriate action. Harvesters should also be aware that such actions may be in violation of federal antitrust laws,” said Keliher’s press release.
Keliher’s statement continued, indicating the governor and the DMR “share industry’s concerns regarding the low price of lobster due to excessive supply” and they are “committed to seeking ways to prevent this scenario in the future through appropriate marketing and management strategies.”
“It’s an awkward situation,” said Penobscot East Resource Center executive director Robin Alden. “The only solution in the short-term is slowing down the flow of soft-shell lobsters, but fishermen have to find a way to do that without breaking the law.”
It’s illegal for fishermen who are not members of a co-op to talk about coordinating a shut-down of fishing, or tying up boats to wait out low prices. This is because each fisherman is a considered an independent business, and just as Wal-Mart and Best Buy can’t coordinate to control the availability of computers, lobstermen can’t coordinate to attempt to control the price of lobster, said Alden. The law is based on the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits price coordination by businesses.
“It’s serious,” said Alden of the law. “In the 1950s the head of the MLA, Les Dyer of Vinalhaven, went to jail for organizing a strike.” (See more about the fishing industry from Alden in a guest column on page 4.)
Members of a co-op are exempt from anti-trust laws, which means they are allowed to talk about coordinating actions with other co-op fishermen.
Trundy said on Tuesday that there is no talk of an official tie-up at the Stonington Lobster Co-op, but on Wednesday many boats didn’t go out. Other co-ops have coordinated shut-downs. On Vinalhaven, for instance, the boats have been tied up for a few days, said Trundy.
Lobsterman Genevieve Kurilec, who listens to the offshore VHF chatter from Jonesport, Spruce Head, Owl’s Head, Corea and other Downeast fishing villages, says she’s heard other ports have basically tied up. She says she is only fishing about one day a week right now and wouldn’t be willing to go out if the price for shedders dropped below $1.50 per pound. Kurilec sells to Green Head Lobster, where the boat price for soft-shell lobsters was $2.05 on Monday.
“The question is how little you’re willing to go out for,” said Kurilec, who said the nature of the industry is to buy cheap and sell high. With bait and gas prices about the same as a year ago, but boat price significantly less, Kurilec said, it’s tough.
“We have to give them away,” said fisherman Jerry Donovan about the low boat price, unloading at the Stonington pier on Tuesday, July 10. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years and never seen ‘em this low.”
Marie Hutchinson shared her father’s account books from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Howard Cleveland fished out of Stonington, and in July of 1972, the boat price ranged from $2.62 to $1.41. Cleveland spent an average of $10 on bait per haul, and less than $8 on fuel. In July of 1982, boat prices were solidly above $3, ranging from $3.21 to $3.61. Gas prices were about $15 per haul, with bait around $13. Cleveland’s hauls averaged between 50 and 75 pounds, though—a far cry from today’s hauls.
“I don’t understand,” said Hutchinson about the low boat prices. “It’s still the same lobster. It hasn’t changed.”
Trundy said the situation for lobstermen is made worse by the rumor mill—including Facebook—where different prices are thrown around. “Someone was saying we were offering $1.25 and no bonus,” said Trundy on Tuesday, who said the rumor was not true.
Other conversations on social media have been focused on the benefits of staying in when the price is so low. Many fishermen have declared their intent online not to fish until the price comes up again.
When asked if Penobscot East had plans to stage a lobster bake or any other events in response to the low boat prices, Alden said the organization is already “fully committed” this summer to long-term efforts to help the industry. “We’re working with the town of Stonington on efforts to improve handling and promoting the health of soft-shell lobsters,” said Alden.
Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said “we all feel terrible for all involved in the industry” and the town is “hugely concerned.”
Billings-Pezaris said there was little the town could do to affect the current market situation. The Stonington Lobster Working Group has several efforts underway, including the study on lobster handling, marketing and promotion efforts.
Such research and efforts “cannot be done overnight and will undoubtedly take more years to make substantial marketing changes and infrastructure changes,” said Billings-Pezaris.
Kurilec said a planning meeting will be held to discuss the possibility of organizing a lobster sale like the one in 2008 on Tuesday, July 17, at 7 p.m. at the Fisherman’s Friend Restaurant. Kurilec said all are welcome.