| PORTLAND, Maine
PORTLAND, Maine Aug 25 By all rights,
lobsterman Steve Train should be the envy of commercial
fishermen around the world.
Lobster populations in Maine are booming like never before.
Tourists readily dole out $15 or more for lobster rolls, those
delectable morsels of seafood on a bun. And environmentalists
have praised the harvest as a rare example of sustainability in
a sea of overfishing.
Enter market forces. Last year's record haul of 126 million
pounds (57 million kg), double that of just a decade ago, led
some to wonder whether lobster might go the way of cheap,
everyday foods like the chicken nugget or TV dinner. Prices paid
to lobstermen at the dock plummeted and have not recovered. They
are barely enough, says Train, to cover fuel and bait.
"It's hard to make a business plan the way things are
going," said the 46-year-old lobsterman, who has fished the
island-studded waters of Casco Bay since he was a teenager.
Even as many of the world's fisheries have floundered, the
Maine lobster harvest, recently certified as sustainable by the
nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council, has reached epic
proportions, but success is relative.
"I'm sure the corn farmer, or the wheat farmer, or chicken
farmers all felt the same way at some point," said Pete Daley, a
manager at Garbo Lobster Co in Hancock, Maine, one of the
country's largest distributors. "People say, 'I'm not getting
the price I used to get, or the price I deserve.' But what we're
seeing here is an industry that's evolving."
No one knows exactly why lobster populations have increased
so quickly. The answer, says marine biologist Robert Steneck,
is likely a combination of warming water temperatures, the
overfishing of inshore predators like cod and a long history of
forward-thinking conservation measures.
"This is a species that has been targeted (by fishermen) for
150 years or more and is doing better today than ever before,"
said Steneck, a professor at the University of Maine. "What
other fishery on the planet can make that claim?"
In a recent sign of shifting ecosystems - and economics -
two of the world's largest lobster distributors, Garbo and the
Massachusetts-based East Coast Seafood, long known as fierce
competitors, joined in a venture to convert the Stinson Seafood
Plant in Prospect Harbor, Maine, the country's last sardine
cannery, to a state-of-the-art lobster processing facility.
This year the plant, called Maine Fair Trade Lobster Co,
will employ 130 people and process 5 million pounds (2.3 million
kg). The number of lobster processing plants in the state has
more than tripled, from 5 in 2010 to 16 last year.
"People are looking at this as a problem," said Michael
Tourkistas, president of East Coast Seafoods, the country's
largest lobster exporter. "But if you're going to have an issue,
excess supply is a good one to have."
ECOLOGY VS. ECONOMICS
The real problems, many observers contend, are those that
have always plagued the industry: a mismatch of ecology and
economics and a lack of cooperation among fishermen and dealers
renowned for cutthroat competition.
In the spring and early summer, lobster come inshore to shed
their rigid shells, making them easy prey for near-shore
lobstermen in small boats - and easy to eat for tourists who
arrive in Maine at about the same time.
The short-term bounty sets up a vicious cycle as the market
quickly saturates and the state's 5,300 lobstermen fish ever
harder to make up for low prices, further depressing the price.
"We all want to make the same paycheck. But if you had an
industry that actually cooperated, you wouldn't be bringing in
more product if you couldn't sell what you already had, right?"
said John Jordan, a lobsterman and president of Calendar Islands
Maine Lobster Co.
Jordan's company and others are frantically seeking new ways
to sneak lobster into unexpected corners of the food market,
from gazpacho to puff pastries and quiche. But before the big
names in the industry move lobster from the "catch of the day"
to the permanent menu, say industry experts, the kinks in the
supply chain must be worked out.
"Being negative is a pretty traditional pursuit for a
lobsterman," said Jordan, who admits to occasional griping
himself. "But the public conversation about low prices does
nothing but depress them further. It's time we all take a more
For now, Daley, of Garbo, says matching supply to demand
means processing more lobster in Maine - boiling, picking,
freezing and storing lobster - to cover the down times. That, he
says, will mean more consistent prices for lobstermen and
Other efforts, including a $2 million marketing
collaborative established by the state legislature this year,
should help get the word out, potentially paving the way for new
markets, he said.
But scientists caution Mother Nature is likely to have the
In southern New England, lobster populations spiked in the
1990s with warmer water temperatures, then were overwhelmed by
disease and have struggled to recover, said researcher Steneck.
As the water warms in the Gulf of Maine, even the most
optimistic lobster aficionados admit to a bit of trepidation, an
increasing concern as fisheries for species like cod and haddock
have either declined or collapsed, leaving fishermen with few
"There isn't an investor in all the world who would suggest
putting all your money in one stock," said Steneck. "But that's
what we're doing here in Maine."
(Editing by Scott Malone and Douglas Royalty)