Lobsters are processed at the Sea Hag Seafood plant in St. George in 2014. The Maine lobster industry’s value and volume fell sharply in 2017. Associated Press//Robert F. Bukaty

ROCKPORT — After a string of record-breaking harvests, the Maine lobster industry saw both its value and volume fall sharply in 2017.

Landings declined 15.3 percent, from almost 131 million pounds in 2016 to 111 million pounds in 2017, and the boat value of the statewide catch fell 18.6 percent, from about $533 million in 2016 to just under $434 million in 2017, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which released its annual catch data Friday at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport. That translates into a drop of 20 million pounds of lobster and $99 million for the state’s lobster fleet.

With a season shortened by a late spring molt and bad winter weather, the numbers were unwelcome but not unexpected, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said.

“One year of decline does not make a trend,” Keliher said. “The way I look at it, we were down 16 percent compared to the highest year on record. It was still the seventh year we landed over 100 million pounds, the sixth highest on record and the fourth highest in value. That’s pretty damn good. Will the industry survive one bad year? Yes. Will it hurt individual lobstermen? Yes. But it’s not an emergency. In a wild resource fishery, there is going to be some up and down.”

After a late molt, fishermen came to the Fishermen’s Forum on Friday prepared to hear the string of record-breaking years had finally ended, said Kristan Porter, the newly elected president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

“Nobody thought we could just keep going up, up, up,” Porter said. “Anybody who fishes knows that’s not possible. We just have to do our best to protect our fishery. If we have a bad year, that’s OK, it’s one bad year. … It’s not a collapse. It’s a reality check.”

Porter said he knew some fishermen who were putting off buying a new truck or replacing an engine because of the drop in take-home pay. Porter’s predecessor, Dave Cousens, said some were delaying boat purchases, or even canceling them, but the decline hadn’t driven anybody out of fishing.

“A good fisherman has to be ready for a bad year,” Porter said. “You have to work around it.”

DECLINE IN VALUE

The decline in value is harder to explain, Keliher said. When the amount of product hitting the market drops, price usually spikes, but the average boat price of lobster fell from $4.08 per pound in 2016 to $3.91 per pound in 2017.

A number of factors contributed to the price of lobster falling, Keliher said. A Canadian-European trade deal that eliminated the tariffs on European imports from the Maritimes depressed demand for U.S. lobsters, he said. Demand also dipped in several U.S. cities hit by hurricanes.

A decline in one year’s catch does not always mean a dip in available supply, dealers said. Canadian dealers and processors still had a lot of live and stored frozen lobsters left over from a banner 2016 catch to sell in 2017, which kept a lid on both the demand and price of the 2017 catch, said lobster dealer Scout Wuerthner of Inland Seafood.

Huge international crab and shrimp harvests also helped keep lobster prices down because they gave international buyers, especially the Chinese, affordable alternatives to lobster for those big celebratory meals, said Annie Tselikis, head of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association.

“Lobster is an international market,” Tselikis said. “Price is affected by so many factors we can’t control that happen thousands of miles away from Maine. It’s not as simple as saying if landings are down, price must go up. It hasn’t been that simple for a long time.”

Still, the 2017 per pound price was the fourth highest on record, data shows.

Dealers talked about lobster prices while unveiling a new study by Colby College professor Michael Donihue that pegged the value of the lobster supply chain at $1 billion. The tally is based on a financial analysis of 20 cooperating lobster wholesalers of different sizes that showed they pumped $244 million into the Maine economy and supported 1,300 jobs. Then Donihue used that sample to predict the economic value of Maine’s 200-dealer network.

“This is a story that doesn’t get told,” Donihue said. “Once lobsters hit the dock, they don’t just disappear. There are buying stations, truck drivers, the people who pack and ship the lobsters, the people who pick the meat. We estimate the supply chain supports 4,000 jobs.”

TOO SOON TO SAY BOOM IS OVER

Keliher said it was far too early to know if the lobster boom that began in 2012 is over. As the Gulf of Maine warms, the lobster population will move, he said. Just as that warming brought Maine the lobster boom, it will eventually lead to a smaller population in near-shore and possibly even offshore waters in the Gulf of Maine, he said, but it’s impossible to know when that decline might begin or how far landings might fall.

Just last month, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and University of Maine published a study that, among other things, predicted a sharp decline in Gulf of Maine stock over the next 30 years, using a computer model that predicts the population will fall 40 to 62 percent by 2030, depending on the rate of warming. The study isn’t the only one to link ocean warming to lobster abundance. In 2015, Rick Wahle of the University of Maine tied shrinking larval habitats to warming.

But Keliher emphasized that the decline in baby lobsters collected near-shore has not translated into predicted declines in juvenile lobsters or catch, at least not until this year.

Scientists are considering whether lobster settlement, or the place where baby lobsters eventually dive down to the ocean floor to begin their life as a bottom dweller, may have moved into deeper waters than currently sampled. That would mean a habitat change, not a population decline.

Still, the state is taking steps to prepare for the day when the lobster boom subsides, Keliher said. It boosted its science budget to $700,000 to help monitor and manage the Gulf of Maine stock, hired another lobster biologist, created a $500,000 research collaborative funded by the sales of lobster license plates, and petitioned interstate regulators to create consistent lobster fishing regulations across the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.

HERRING RANKS NO.2

Keliher continues to pursue opportunities to promote diversification within the commercial fishery, something he promised during his confirmation hearings and predicted at the time would be his biggest challenge as commissioner. Maine has added a few elver and scallop fishing licenses and promoted aquaculture in coastal communities where lobstering was once the only option, he said. But adding fishing opportunities is not easy in a highly regulated environment.

The department was just recently able to secure a bigger share of the national menhaden, or pogy, quota, which was a big victory for Maine fishermen who use the fish as bait, Keliher said.

Lobster is just one of Maine’s commercial fisheries, which in 2017 commanded a total value of just over $569 million. That’s the fourth-highest value on record, but it’s $700,000 down from 2016, which was the all-time high, according to DMR data. Herring, the primary bait source for the lobster industry, was the second-most valuable commercial fishery at $18 million yearly value, with its 66.5 million pound harvest showing a record per-pound price of 27 cents.

The soft-shell clam industry was the third most valuable at $12.4 million. State officials attributed the $3.8 million decline in value to algal bloom closures.

The $12.2 million elver industry remained the most valuable fishery on a per-pound basis, coming in at $1,303 a pound. Scallops rounded out the top five, with a harvest that jumped nearly 45 percent year over year to 793,544 meat pounds. The total scallop fishery came in at $9.3 million, the highest since 1993. State officials attributed it to longer seasons in certain zones and the success of rotational closures in other areas.

“Maine’s scallop fishery continues its impressive rebound thanks in large part to harvesters’ compliance with area closures and limits,” Keliher said.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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