Fishermen load crates of lobster onto the lobster boat Dividend at the Cranberry Isles Fishermen's Co-op at Islesford, Maine, on July 13, 2022. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Falling consumer demand for lobster has brought fishing income tumbling back to earth this summer, a year after the value of Maine’s statewide haul soared to a new record of $730 million.

But despite the steep drop in the price lobstermen are getting for their catch, also known as the boat price, some retail prices remain relatively high because many sellers spent more for wholesale lobster months ago.

It is too early to tell where the 2022 catch will settle out, but with Maine fishermen currently getting a little more than $3 a pound, it is pretty much certain that their average annual price will fall far short of the record $6.71 that they achieved last year.

“People are scratching their heads,” Stonington fisherman John Williams said about the steep drop in prices being offered to fishermen. “Last year, we were getting $711 per crate. It’s $306 per crate now.”

What’s making it even worse for fishermen is that bait and fuel cost more than ever, so it’s hard to turn a profit when they motor out to sea to haul their gear.

Just a couple of years ago, a 500-pound barrel of menhaden, also known as pogies, fetched around $130 but now costs roughly between $200 and $250. Diesel fuel, which a year ago cost around $3 per gallon, now costs more than $5 per gallon after having been above $6 in May and June, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Fishermen faced a similar pricing problem in 2012 and 2013, when unusually warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine caused an unseasonal glut of softshell or “new shell” lobster that resulted in boat prices falling to around $2 per pound. But the economy was in better shape then.

“For many Maine lobstermen, this season is worse than 2012,” said Dustin Delano, a Friendship fisherman who, like Williams, serves on the board of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Prices paid to fishermen typically fluctuate throughout the year, and in recent years it has not been unusual for it to dip between $3 and $4 per pound in summer, when lobsters shed their hard shells and catch rates rise sharply. Because of their soft shells, Maine lobster caught in summer can’t be shipped far and so typically either goes into the New England restaurant market or is sent to processors, who cook and then freeze the meat.

The muted demand for lobster is showing up in pandemic-weary restaurants, which have seen a decline in customers and fewer orders for higher-priced menu items, according to SeafoodSource.

Still, some retail prices for lobster remain relatively high, though what a consumer pays can vary widely, depending on what form they buy it in and where they buy it.

Uncooked live lobsters, most of which weigh between 1 and 2 pounds, now are selling for less than $10 at some supermarkets, but can cost $15 or higher at specialty seafood shops. Maine restaurants offer whole cooked lobster dinners for upward of $30 and, though lobster roll prices have come down from the $40 range in early summer, many places still are charging $25 to $30 per roll.

Williams said he usually hauls traps six days a week and spends roughly $2,500 a week on bait and fuel, but some fishermen who fish longer days and farther from shore spend more than $5,000 a week. Slowing down could help reduce those expenses, and less lobster on the market could boost the boat price, he said, but fishermen aren’t inclined to sit on the sidelines during peak lobster season.

“Everybody’s got to make money this time of year,” he said. “There isn’t an easy answer.”

But Delano said some fishermen have resorted to hauling less gear and are checking their traps only once a week “because any more than that simply isn’t worth it.” Some dealers also have stopped buying from fishermen on certain days of the week, usually on Saturdays, to try to help slow things down and keep prices from sinking further, he said.

“Personally, I don’t see things changing until much later in the fall at the earliest,” Delano said. “I’m concerned that the worst could be yet to come.”

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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....