Boothbay Harbor lobstermen Fred Farnhamby Elisa Hawkes
Coastal Journal staff
BOOTHBAY HARBOR — In recent weeks, dock prices for lobsters have reached near record lows in Maine, and it has lobstermen worried. They have been meeting up and down the coast to plan a response to plummeting prices. Some have docked their boats rather than incur operating costs they cannot pay by selling their catches at such low rates.
In Boothbay Harbor, prices have dropped as low as $2.35 per pound, according to lobstermen unloading their catch on the docks along Atlantic Avenue. In 2006, lobster prices hit an all time high of $10 per pound, and in 2007 hovered around $4.50. Reports from Port Clyde said the price was down to $1.85 there.
On Friday, Clive Farrin, longtime lobsterman and president of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, said prices have been falling since the financial downturn in 2008. He said the large lobster population, leading to a high volume of product on the market, combined with the depressed U.S. economy, has caused prices to drop.
Some people blame climate change for the increase in lobster populations. According to Maine Department of Marine Resources lobster biologist Carl Wilson, deep water temperatures this past winter were two to four degrees warmer than in the last eight to 10 years.
“As a general rule, lobsters migrate to deeper water in the winter to avoid really cold shallow water temperatures,” Wilson said in June.
Wilson said lobsters spent the winter in warmer conditions and did not go into dormancy, so they continued to eat and grow. He said water temperatures would probably be warmer than usual again next winter. Unpredictable temperatures could have a lasting effect on the lobster industry, Wilson said.
One of the things Farrin feels needs to happen for the lobster market to turn around, is to improve marketing techniques. According to Farrin, the glut of lobster on the market would be acceptable if lobstermen and the lobster industry in general could generate more markets for the product. He said the price of lobster is not necessarily the problem. It is not being able to sell enough of it. In Boothbay Harbor, the harvest is not large enough, according to Farrin. Where there is enough lobster, further east, the demand is not high enough.
One lobsterman was heard to say lobster should be thought of as a grocery store item, like steak or chicken, to be put on the shopping list. The way to get lobster on the shopping list, he said, is by moving it from the lobster tank to the frozen food aisle and making cheaper.
According to Farrin, the marketing budget is not large enough to accomplish the job. Up to this point, there has been a mere $500,000 budget to promote lobster.
This winter, however, the state’s Lobster Advisory Council (LAC) decided to investigate better methods for marketing Maine lobster. Project Maine Lobster will identify, develop and initiate projects to be implemented over a three-year period aimed at selling more lobsters. The project will cost $3 million, 75 percent of which will come from lobstermen, 25 percent from dealers. The split in cost between dealers and lobstermen is the same as that used to fund the Maine Lobster Promotion Council.
Boothbay Harbor lobstermen Fred Farnham and Farrin say Harbor lobstermen have continued fishing regardless of the low prices. Lobster boats in some other communities have remained docked rather than lose money by fishing.
“We’re just about breaking even,” Farnham said, “We all have to pay the bills, so we fish. But I’m barely covering gas. There’s no money to put into equipment, and if something breaks, it would be better to have something to fall back on.
“I’ve seen low prices in my 40 years of lobstering, but the population (lobsters) has been steadily increasing for a few years now. There’s a lot of product out there, but not as much as further east.”
New Harbor Lobster Co-op President Brian Sawyer said, “We’ve got 1970 prices and 2012 expenses.”
According to Farrin, the prices have not kept up with expenses. The price of gas and maintenance on equipment is expensive, but low product prices make it difficult to pay the bills.
Farrin says although Harbor lobstermen have not stopped fishing, they are cutting expenses wherever they can. He says the boats are expensive pieces of equipment, as are the traps, and paying for constant wear and tear leaves little for families to live on.
Farrin said, “Most people will haul gear three days instead of four now. It keeps expenses down. Folks are taking days off and waiting to see what happens.”
As far as restaurant prices go, Farrin said, “I can’t speak for all of them, but some restaurants in this area are running lobster specials. The summer visitors will buy more. It’s good for everyone.”