The numbers are in. Maine lobster fishers pulled in 125,953,876 pounds in 2013, just one percent under the 2012 total of 127.2 million pounds. No one asked me how much I, as a recreational five trap guy caught, so that number is shy of the real total. Perhaps someone guesstimates the recreational landings. Once again, these landings numbers blow away the notion that a hundred million pounds is a fluke or an unsustainable harvest. I do strongly suspect however, that Maine lobster fishing is more like free range ranching than fishing from the wild, since the catch depends on 200,000,000+ pounds of bait in our traps. Due to informed practices such as strict size limits and the marking and release of egg-bearing females, most lobster end up getting a free meal rather than ending up on dinner plates. Compare this number with the average harvest in most of the middle of the 20th century, twenty million pounds!
Isn’t it funny though, that we seem so ready for bad news that when good news comes along we are totally unprepared? Such is the case for the lobster market: an oversupply of perishable soft shell lobsters depresses the prices to the point that fishing is now a very thin-margin business. For four years in the mid 2000s the boat price for lobsters was over $4/ lb, while diesel was from $2-$3/gallon. Now the prices are reversed: fuel tops $4 and the average price in 2013 paid at the dock was $2.89. This is an improvement over 2012, which was $2.69. In 2012 they were making jokes about lobster being cheaper than bologna. So even though the landings number is 1% less, the increase in price resulted in an extra $23 million to the fishers, in 2013.
This price increase over 2012 seems to be purely accidental, perhaps due to the improving economy. There is sentiment to face this good-news landings situation with a little planning. In other words, what can we do to improve the price situation for Maine’s lobster fishers so that they can afford to fish? One answer could be the new Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. Expect to see big bucks spent on promoting Maine lobster in the years ahead. One of the problems is that “Maine lobster” is often used as a generic term for the North American Lobster, Homarus americanus, so we have chain restaurants promoting their “Maine lobsters” from Nova Scotia, etc. (Please don’t write me about how good lobsters from Canada are, I’m not saying they’re not). The new collaborative aims to certify lobsters from Maine so that the public is aware of where their crustacean are from, and reclaim the “Maine lobster” label.
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative takes over from Maine Lobster Promotion Council with a bigger budget and more state government involvement. Their slick new website, http://www.lobsterfrommaine.com, has history, info on sustainability, recipes and lots of links to dealers. What it lacks for now are decent videos…I tried to embed one below and all I found were tiny-window versions. Go here to see what I mean.
Another problem is the glut of soft shell lobster in the summer months. They don’t travel well, so we have to eat them here or keep them in pounds until their shells toughen up. However, the vast majority of the catch is processed so that it is available everywhere, year ’round, as frozen meat. Most processing factories are in Canada, but this is changing. In 2012 a shipment of Maine lobsters was stopped at the border by angry Canadian fishers, who saw our cheap prices as undercutting their hard work. The move to establish more Maine processors has accelerated since. At only 10% of the total, Maine lobster processing has room to grow. Time will tell if it will result in higher prices.
I have a feeling that due to our unusually cold winter of 2013/2014 we may see lower landings numbers for 2014. That will raise prices, but will also start the usual chorus of crash prediction, which may undo the new investments. Tune back in a year to see if I’m right!