This year isn’t turning out to be one that members of Maine’s lobstering community will remember as one of their best.
And according to some, 2009 probably won’t be, either.
The global economic crisis recently has sent lobster prices tumbling to their lowest point in roughly 15 years, but that’s not the only challenge Maine’s $280 million lobster fishing industry has faced in 2008. There also has been a squeeze on the supply of herring, which most lobstermen use as bait; a state mandate for some lobstermen to report their catch; a looming federal deadline for switching to whale-safe rope; and a midsummer spike in diesel prices to nearly $5 a gallon.
If there have been any positive developments for the industry to be seen in 2008, it would be in recognizing how badly things could have ended up, but didn’t quite. The federal rope rule deadline that was to take effect last month ended up being pushed back to April 2009, and the price of diesel has fallen back to below $3 a gallon — although that is still more than a dollar higher than it was just a couple of years ago.
For motorists, the price of gasoline has fallen sharply over the past two months from more than $3.50 a gallon to around $2. The low price is approximately what gasoline cost before damage to oil industry infrastructure caused by Gulf Coast Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sent fuel prices soaring in late 2005.
But the recent steep decline in diesel prices likely will not be enough to help bail out the 2008 lobstering season, according to industry representatives. The cost of fuel may have come down from its unprecedented heights, they say, but the price for lobster is still too low. The last time lobstermen earned $2.50 a pound for their catch, which is around what many say they are being paid now, was in the early 1990s.
“It’s not making a difference,” Clive Farrin, a Boothbay Harbor lobsterman and president of Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, said Monday. “A year ago, we were getting around $4.25 [per pound]. I’m making less money [this year] with more lobsters.”
The decline in price has been traced to a lack of demand among Canadian seafood processors, which typically buy more than half of the annual lobster landings in Maine. The processors relied on banks in Iceland for their financing but lost much of it when Iceland’s top banks faltered last month in the global credit crisis.
Jack Merrill, a Cranberry Isles fisherman who is first vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said lower fuel prices make up only one piece among many in the lobster industry’s larger economic picture. Lobstermen can use 40 to 100 gallons of diesel a day, he said, which still adds up to a substantial fuel bill, and they continue to face high bait and labor costs.
“I can’t leave the dock without spending between $350 and $400, and I still have to pay my crew,” Merrill said. “I can’t make a living.”
Patrice McCarron, executive director of MLA, said Tuesday that though escalating fuel prices helped push up the price of all lobstering supplies, including bait and equipment, the current low fuel prices have not resulted in other costs coming down.
“It was really high for a while,” she said of diesel prices. “It certainly can’t hurt [that they’ve come down], but I don’t think it’s making fishermen profitable.”
This many fishing communities along the coast have organized and held special sales to help draw attention to lobster’s unusually low price and to provide fishermen with a needed boost in income. On Tuesday, a handful of state legislators and other officials held a press conference in Augusta to urge Mainers to buy lobster in-stead of turkey for Thanksgiving.
Farrin said a recent community lobster sale in Boothbay Harbor resulted in 6,000 lobsters being sold in five hours. These community events help draw attention to the poor economic climate, he said, but do little to compensate for the decline in sales to Canadian processors.
“You’d have to do something like that every week in order to make a dent,” Farrin said.
McCarron said such localized sales efforts can help some fishermen in the short term, but they cannot account for the sales volume needed for the industry to recover. The best solution, she said, is for the economy to rebound — which may not happen soon, she added.
Landings have been “pretty strong” this year, she said, and the health of the resource appears to be relatively good, but there’s no indication the economy is going to recover in the near future.
If lobstermen do end up with extra money to spend on equipment for next season, McCarron said, many likely will use it to buy sinking rope for their groundlines, which will be a federal requirement as of April 5, 2009. She said the cost and practicality of switching to more expensive sinking rope always have been a challenging prospect, even before the price of lobster tanked.
“I fully expect [the industry] will be reeling when we get going next spring,” McCarron said. “[The economy] is not something that I foresee turning around in a few months.”
In a move that some fishermen say could lead to greater regulatory burdens on lobstering, state regulators for the first time this year randomly picked approximately 850 licensed lobstermen, representing about 10 percent of the licensed lobstermen in Maine, to file detailed monthly fishing activity reports with the state Department of Marine Resources. State officials have said the information is necessary for regulators to keep track of how much fishing effort is involved in the state’s annual lobster landings.
Industry officials said that while landings have been respectable this year, they may end up lower than they were in 2007, when 63 million pounds of lobster with a total value of $280 million was caught in Maine. That catch represented a 16 percent drop in volume and a 10 percent drop in value from 2006, when fishermen caught 75 million pounds of lobster and sold it for nearly $312 million.
Merrill said that with low lobster prices, many lobstermen are less enthusiastic about braving November’s cold winds and 15-foot seas. He said about half of those who fish from the Cranberry Isles already have taken in their gear for the winter, even though in recent years November typically has been one of the industry’s most lucrative months.
“I think everyone is less motivated,” he said. “It’s a dangerous job. It’s a tough job.”
Farrin said he usually brings his gear in during the fall and starts doing carpentry work onshore to get through the winter. This year, he said, he hasn’t been able to line up carpentry work, so he is going to keep fishing as long as he can, low prices or not.
He estimated that, with typical November and December weather, he’ll be able to get in about a week’s worth of fishing by the end of the year.
“You’ve got to go out tomorrow and take your licking,” Farrin said. “2008 certainly will be a year to remember, especially the last few months.”