Bass Harbor lobsterman and Maine Lobstermen’s Association Vice President Jim Dow, left, took a few minutes to discuss trends in the lobster industry with Governor LePage, center, and Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher Friday at the Maine Fisherman’s Forum. PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Fishermen enjoy lobster boom, but look ahead

ROCKPORT — Jim Dow of Bass Harbor checked out displays from boat builders, electronics suppliers, engine manufacturers and other fishing-related businesses in the trade show rooms at the Maine Fisherman’s Forum at the Samoset Resort Friday. Evidence of the record income from last year’s lobster season was easy to find at the event, from order backlogs for new boats to new trucks in the parking lot. Last year, landings were good, and the price was better.

“I’ve heard that every dollar the fishing industry generates turns into four dollars” as it circulates in the local economy, Dow said.

Of the eight coastal counties in the state, Hancock County lobstermen brought in more than $154 million, a third of the total value of lobster landings in the state in 2014, according to Department of Marine Resources (DMR) data.

Several new engines ordered by Mount Desert Island fishermen sit awaiting installation at Downeast Diesel in Southwest Harbor, said Jon Carter of Bar Harbor. Electricians have been busy installing new gear. “I’ve fixed things on my boat this year that I never dreamed I would fix.”

Even as they enjoy the rewards from a strong season, fishermen are focused on how to protect both the lobster population and a good boat price.

At the Forum Friday, Dow, who serves as first vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) board, took a chance to chat with Governor Paul LePage. He told the governor he’s hopeful about a planned fishery management plan (FMP) for lobster in the works at the DMR. Scientists and regulators there work closely with industry representatives to protect the lobster resource, planning ahead for years that might not be so bountiful. They will host public hearings and collect written public comment at every stage of the management process.

The plan would not have the force of law or regulation, but instead is a sort of strategic plan for the industry. If landings drop below a trigger level, which is higher than the trigger set by the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the plan would recommend limited fishing to allow the lobster population to increase.

Lobstermen sell their catch to co-ops, private buyers or wholesalers who send trucks to public docks. “Lobster is a commodity,” said Michael Radcliffe of Thurston’s in Bass Harbor. “Price fluctuates with supply and demand. We tend to look to the larger co-ops to figure out what’s a rational price at any given time.”

The memory of 2012, when the price dropped 15 percent from the previous year, is still very much on everyone’s minds. The fishing season begins when lobsters shed their shells as water temperature warms in June or July. Warm water in 2012 meant Maine fishermen were catching lobster weeks earlier than normal, causing a price crash and conflict with Canadian fishermen and processors.

MLA President David Cousens of South Thomaston began a discussion with a guest column in the February edition of the MLA newsletter about how to avoid a repeat of that scenario the next time the shed arrives early.

“The two goals would be not to put too many soft shells in the marketplace until the third week of July and to slow the catch until the shell on most of the lobsters is of shippable quality,” he wrote. “This would ensure a supply of quality shippable lobsters to be able to fill the demand domestically and abroad, thus taking advantage of the live market, which is more valuable to the harvester.”

The conversation about timing generated some debate at the MLA annual meeting at the Forum Friday and around the industry.

“We’re just like the restaurants and hotels here in Bar Harbor,” Carter told the Islander. “You have a short window where you have to make your money. It’s a tricky situation.”

Cousens is quick to point out that his suggestion is only meant to spark conversation. It’s outside the scope of what the DMR is allowed to regulate. “There’s no plan in place. It’s not a conspiracy,” he said. “If we have an early shed, what is the best way to handle it? Can we collectively come up with an idea so if this happens again, we’re better prepared? We lost $30 or $40 million statewide in 2012. If I was the CEO of a large company and I saw a loss that big, I would do something to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute released a report last week predicting a later shed for 2015 because of the cold winter. Because an early shed this year is so unlikely, Cousens said, “we’ve got at least a year to talk about it. But I’m not convinced that we’re going to start getting colder every year.”

Also in this series:

Part 2: “Dealers, wholesalers adapt to changing market

Part 3: “Marketers looking to carve niche for ‘new shell’ lobster”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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