Snow falls over the local harbor in Sorrento on Dec. 10, 2021, as lobster fishermen bring traps ashore from the fishing vessel Gina Lynne. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

The price of lobster in 2021 was at a record high, demand was massive and Maine lobstermen raked in a historic $730 million. 

The industry is reeling from a rough year as 2023 nears, but remains optimistic an eleventh-hour pause in new regulations will bring relief.

Dark clouds along the industry’s horizon arrived in 2022, pitching the state’s biggest fishery into uncertainty. Lobster prices were cut in half, demand slowed, fuel prices skyrocketed and the industry lost legal battles that attempted to stop new restrictions on the fishing fleet.

The fishery was expecting to see regulations aimed at protecting the endangered right whale start to take shape in 2023 for implementation in 2024. But just last week, the Maine congressional delegation inserted a six-year delay on any new rules in the massive federal spending bill awaiting the signature of President Joe Biden.

The delay will give the fishery time to make the case that it is not what is causing the demise of right whales, which are endangered, with only about 340 remaining up and down the East Coast. Lobstermen have argued that assumptions and out-of-date data are the basis for cuts to the industry and new regulations won’t actually help the right whale recovery. 

The pause will allow the best science to prevail, Chebeague Island lobsterman Jeff Putnam said.

“This really just gives us more time to fight and to make sure the correct data is being used,” he said. “We have to continue to make our case that Maine gear is not the problem.” 

New regulations were required because a judge deemed the current management of the fishery in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Earlier in 2022, lobstermen got a first glimpse of what could eventually be coming. 

A proposal to meet a 90 percent risk reduction for the whales was deliberated by federal managers and an advisory group earlier this month. It included a cap that will limit Maine fishermen to 400 traps, half of what is currently allowed.

The preliminary package, which includes the entire East Coast lobster fishery, got mixed reviews from the advisory group and is not officially being proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That preliminary proposal also had a two-month annual closure in the state’s easternmost fishing zone, an expansion of the offshore closure implemented last year and more requirements for weaker fishing lines.

Putnam, a member of the advisory group, argued that Maine had already enacted enough measures to help save the whales, which can get ensnared in fishing lines. 

“We’re doing things that would reduce the risk of entanglement to right whales,” he said. “To try and push these extreme levels of major trap cuts and closures goes really beyond what needs to be done.”

While the fleet waits for the wheels of the regulatory and legislative processes to turn, the industry is also hoping that the public’s appetite for lobster returns in the coming year. Demand for Maine’s prized crustacean fell off this year from a red-hot 2021, something industry members generally chalked up to a rough economy.

The average price lobstermen got per pound of lobster in 2021 was $6.71. Justin Snyder, the dock manager at Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor, believed that price, almost $2 more than the next highest ever annual average price per pound, had an artificial boost during the beginning of the pandemic. 

But he said he warned fishermen that this high wouldn’t last forever, and it didn’t. For much of 2022, lobstermen said they’ve been fetching about $3.50 per pound. It’s hard to predict where prices would go next year, said Marianne LaCroix, the head of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. 

Her organization has been trying to rehabilitate the Maine lobster brand after its sustainability was called into question in 2022. In September, Seafood Watch, a sustainability watchdog, advised customers to avoid Maine lobster because of the fishery’s impact on right whales. A few months later, the Marine Stewardship Council yanked its sustainability certification, prompting the high end grocery chain Whole Foods to drop the product from its offerings. 

Lobstermen throughout Maine were incensed by the accusation that their fishery wasn’t sustainable, even though a court had ruled the management is running afoul of the Endangered Species Act. How much it actually affected lobster sales isn’t clear. 

The marketing collaborative has been doing media outreach, giving dealers talking points to handle any questions on sustainability and even put an advertorial in the Boston Globe to gin up support for the industry and get people to eat more lobster. 

“Our focus is on the reputation side,” LaCroix said. “Our job is to make sure people are inspired to eat Maine lobster.” 

Though there’s a lot of doom and gloom in the industry, there are some signs of optimism as well. Along with the six-year pause, Maine lobstermen watched the White House serve their catch at a state dinner this month, a gesture some fishermen took as a signal that change could be coming. But others weren’t so sure. 

With the current lobster price so low and other costs up, balancing the budget became perilous for some fishermen this year. The long term outlook for the industry, which is also expected to be drastically affected by a warming and more acidic Gulf of Maine, has some fishermen looking to sell their boats while they still hold some value.

Others tried to cut down on their expenses by hauling fewer days a week or by putting out fewer traps than usual. Some seeking lobsters miles and miles from shore went in the opposite direction, pulling up even more traps per day to make the long trek out to sea worth their while.

Richard Larrabee Jr., a Stonington lobsterman, said he’d be “tickled to death” if he fetched the current lobster prices 10 years ago. But now, with other costs up and no sign of dropping, he didn’t have a bright disposition for 2023.

“I don’t think next year is going to be any different than this year,” he said. “I’m not expecting sunshine and rainbows, I’ll tell you that.”