BY JESSICA HALL
Portland Press Herald
Maine’s lobster industry this year has avoided the Canadian protests and court orders that marred last season, but prices continue to disappoint lobstermen.
This lobster season has progressed more normally than last year’s, with soft-shell lobsters appearing more slowly, rather than all at once. That has allowed Maine’s largest and most lucrative fishery to absorb the harvest over time, instead of handling it at once, which resulted in last year’s lobster glut and price crash.
A year ago this week, a Canadian judge granted an injunction that ordered protesters not to block entrances to lobster processing plants. Canadian lobstermen were protesting the delivery of Maine lobsters to Canadian processors by blocking access to the plants, saying they could not compete with the low price of the imported Maine product.
This year, lobstermen say they aren’t dreading the opening of the two-month Canadian lobster season on Friday.
“It got dramatic last year way before the Canadian season even opened,” said Matt McAleney, general manager of New Meadows Lobster. “There was a glut in the market that created a domino effect. It was unprecedented.”
This year, he said, the opening of the Canadian season “is not really an issue. It’s a blip we’re not really worried about.”
Even without the dramatic scenes of last summer, lobstermen are concerned. The catch has been large and prices have been soft, lobstermen and state officials said.
“There are a lot of positives to report this year, but challenges remain,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources. “We’re hearing that landings are high again, but harvesters continue to be disappointed with boat price, which underscores the importance of increasing demand and value for Maine lobster.”
The total volume and average price of the state’s lobster catch for 2013 won’t be released until early next year, but lobstermen said the volume of soft-shell lobsters has been heavy but slightly less than last year.
Joel Pitcher, who is organizing the Maine Lobstermen’s Union, said, “Prices this year have been closely matching last year even though the volume isn’t quite there. Last year, the reason for bad prices was that there was a glut; but people are wondering what the reason is this year, when volume isn’t quite as high.”
The lobsterman’s union, which has nearly 500 harvesters signed so far, is scheduled to hold a meeting Sunday in Bangor to take nominations for officers and begin the bylaw approval process, Pitcher said.
Last year, Maine lobstermen hauled a record 123 million pounds of lobster, up 18 percent from 2011. The total value of the catch, however, dropped 1.1 percent, to $331 million.
The average price per pound in 2012 was $2.69, down from $3.19 a pound in 2011, according to the Department of Marine Resources.
Rocky Alley, a lobsterman in Jonesport, said prices have dropped in the past week as the catch has picked up Down East.
“They said the demand for lobster is less than the supply,” Alley said. “It’s frustrating. You get a boatload of lobster and they aren’t worth anything.”
Prices along the Maine coast vary by location, depending on the volume of the catch in each region.
Down East, wholesale prices were about $2.20 a pound this week. In midcoast towns, prices were roughly $2.60 a pound. They were near $2.80 a pound in southern Maine, where volume has been easing in recent weeks, dealers said.
Prices were slightly higher earlier in the season, before the catch was abundant throughout the state, dealers said. In July, wholesale prices for soft-shell lobsters were in the range around $3 per pound.
Low wholesale prices have kept retail prices modest. At Hannaford supermarkets in Portland, the price this week was $5.99 per pound for 1-pound to 1.25-pound lobsters.
Some lobstermen sidestep dealers and sell directly to customers at roadside stands.
To combat weak prices, the state has planned a $2 million marketing effort, to be led by the new Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, to promote Maine lobster around the country and internationally.
Maine also has been trying to expand its lobster-processing capacity so more can be processed in the state rather being shipped to Canada, which now handles most of the industry’s processing.
Keliher, the marine resources commissioner, said four new processors have established licenses in Maine this year.
“If all 16 processors from last year renew their licenses this year, we will have a total of 20 processors,” he said. “While the increased marketing is necessary to grow demand, increasing our processing capacity will be vital to Maine’s ability to meet the increased demand.”