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Deer Isle, Isle au Haut and Stonington, Maine.
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by Jessica Brophy
Lobstermen are experiencing an unpleasant déjà vu as boat price paid for lobster sinks as low as $2 a pound. Prices this low haven’t been seen since the dark days of 2008, when the global recession pushed prices low all season.
Early arrival of shedders (soft-shell lobsters) has created a problem glut in the local market.
Carla Guenther, Fisheries Science and Leadership Advisor at Penobscot East Resource Center, said she’s heard from fishermen all over the state that shedders came on early. While she’s not on the dock, she says, she has heard here in Stonington that landings have been heavy, but the quality of the product has been low, meaning the lobsters are very soft. This means the mortality rate for lobster is up to twice what it normally is, or more, and the shelf life is very short.
Most soft-shell lobsters are processed in Canada, but the Canadian fishing season just shut down, said Stonington Lobster Co-op manager Ronnie Trundy.
“The market’s not ready,” said Trundy. “There’s no good place to take shedders.”
Guenther said Canadian fishermen had a “record season” that stretched to the very last day the fishery was open. Usually things “peter out” well before that, said Guenther. Typically, Maine shedders don’t run until late June and come heavy in July, but this year shedders came on in May. This means the lull that usually happens for the Canadian processors in June just did not happen.
Canadian processors usually shut down during that lull for a few weeks to clean and perform maintenance on machines, said Trundy. Guenther said processors are required by the Canadian equivalent of the FDA to do so. If the Canadian processors shut down for a few weeks now, prices may stay depressed until the processors reopen.
This means many fishermen are counting on volume to make up for the low boat price. Boat price is about $1 per pound less than this time last year, but fuel and bait are the same if not higher, said Trundy. High volume landings further the problem of a lobster glut on the market, as the product already landed hasn’t been moved through the system yet.
Guenther said the ideal solution to the problem of low-quality lobster and the glut on the market would be for fishermen to hold off fishing for a few weeks.
“Some of the lobsters that are being caught haven’t even had a chance to feed or harden at all,” said Guenther. “They’re more like jellyfish than lobsters, almost liquid that will slide through your fingers.”
Guenther says she knows fishermen are ready to fish and ready to bring in good money, and many can’t afford or aren’t willing to hold out for a few weeks, but biologically it would be best to let the lobsters feed and harden on the ocean floor.
“Why waste fuel, bait and time hauling stuff up that won’t live?” asked Guenther. “Let them sit on the bottom, let them harden, and get more per dollar spent on fuel and bait in a few weeks.” Guenther thinks those weeks would be enough time to let the Canadian processors reopen and work through the lobsters that have already been landed.
Lobster pounds and lobster buyers are running out of space to hold lobsters. When asked if this meant some dealers might stop buying lobsters, Trundy said his buyer has said he’ll keep on buying, “but that was yesterday and it could all change tomorrow.”
The low boat price translates into a low price for consumers, with shedders available for $3-$4 per pound.
As in 2008, when there was a public push to buy and consume lobster—including a lobster bake on the pier—the only thing that can be done to support local fisherman is to buy lobster. “It’s about all that can be done right now,” said Trundy.
Live lobsters are available for purchase at many local outlets island-wide.