Lobster is unloaded at a Rockland pier in this September 2017 photo. The landings value for Maine's signature seafood species dropped by nearly $100 million in 2017, according to state officials. Credit: File

The value of Maine’s statewide lobster landings in 2017 dropped by nearly $100 million from the previous year, the largest single-year decline in the fishery’s history.

Still, the annual landings value of $433,789,855 represents Maine’s fourth-highest yearly lobster landings total — a testament to just how big the fishery’s recent boom has been. From 2011 to 2016, the value of annual catches in Maine rose by nearly $200 million, or by nearly 60 percent, from $334 million to a record of $533 million.

Some fishermen and lobster dealers expressed concerns last fall that the annual landings volume could drop below 100 million pounds for the first time since 2010, but decent catches this fall, especially in eastern Maine, helped keep the yearly catch volume above that number. The 2017 catch volume total was nearly 111 million pounds, which is 20 million pounds less than the 2016 harvest total.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Thursday that 2017 marks the seventh year in a row that annual landings in Maine have been more than 100 million pounds, which never happened before 2011. The 130.8 million pounds landed in Maine in 2016 is the state’s highest-ever annual catch volume.

“We still have a really strong resource out there,” Keliher said. “It’s a wild resource, so there will always be variables.”

Keliher added that some scientific surveys of pre-harvest life stages of lobster in the Gulf of Maine suggest that catches could go back up in the next couple of years. Not all of the various life-stage surveys point to the same expected outcomes, he said, but Maine lobster is expected to continue to be one of the most valuable fisheries in the country.

The fishery “will weather the storm” of the drop in value, Keliher said. “We remain optimistic.”

The $99.3 million decline in lobster fishing gross revenue represents a drop in value of 18.6 percent.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Friday that 111 million pounds of lobster represents a very good annual harvest. Ups and downs in the fishery’s volume and value is to be expected, she added, and so could result in higher revenues in 2018.

“Anything above 100 million pounds would have been inconceivable 10 years ago,” she said. “I think the industry is in great shape.”

Maine has experienced significant drops in the fishery’s value before. In 2008, statewide gross landings revenue decreased by $35 million from the previous year, marking a 12 percent decline in value. In 2001 it declined by $33.7 million, from $187.7 million in 2000 to $154 million, for a drop just shy of 18 percent.

Along with last year’s decrease in catch volume came a decrease in the average price paid to lobstermen for their catch. Fishermen on average earned $3.91 per pound last year, which is 17 cents less than the 2016 average of $4.08 per pound.

The $3.91 average is higher than any of the annual price averages Maine lobstermen earned from 2008 through 2014, when they ranged between $2.70 and $3.70 per pound. Aside from 2015 and 2016, the only time Maine lobstermen earned a yearly average of more than $4 per pound was from 2004 through 2007.

For years, lobster fishermen, scientists and regulators have acknowledged that the lobster population boom in the Gulf of Maine over the past 30 years will reverse course, more likely sooner than later. A Gulf of Maine Research Institute study released last month indicates that the gulf’s lobster population could drop by as much as two-thirds by 2050.

From the end of World War II through the 1980s, the annual statewide harvest in Maine was always between 15 million and 25 million pounds. But since the 1990s, when overfishing caused the gulf’s cod stocks to collapse and warming water boosted the survival rate of juvenile lobsters, they have risen dramatically.

Other fisheries in Maine had historically productive years in 2017, according to DMR.

Maine’s herring fishery had its second-most-valuable landings total ever last year, with nearly $18 million worth landed in the state. The value of scallop landings in Maine in 2017 was $9.3 million, the highest total since Maine fishermen harvested $9.9 million worth in 1993. The $12 million worth of baby eels harvested in Maine last year is the fourth-highest annual value for that fishery.

Overall, Maine fishermen brought $569 million worth of marine organisms ashore in 2017, the fourth-highest annual total for all marine species harvested in the state.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....