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Shellfish Update: Lobster

Maine lobster landings pick up in the fall after a slow summer season

November 01, 2005 In Maine, the domestic leader of lobster landings, it boils down to anyone’s guess as to why the summer catch was off — way off. It’s also anyone’s guess as to why landings started to pick up in the fall.

“Everyone has a hunch,” says Jeff Holden, owner of Portland Shellfish in Portland, Maine. “Could be colder water; more fresh water; [lobsters are] not feeding for some reason. And then something changes. Nobody can predict.”

It’s too early to tell if 2005’s volume will surpass last year’s Maine landings of 70.8 million pounds, for a value of $285 million. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

However, comparing annual catches can get complicated, since mandatory reporting was instituted in Maine only in 2004. Prior to that, wholesalers reported on a voluntary basis. If they do not report now, their license is not renewed.

Even though most dealers now report weekly, full statistical information won’t be tallied and released by the Department of Marine Resources until January.

In October, dealer William Atwood of Spruce Head Island, Maine, estimated landings were off by about 25 percent from a year earlier. Landings were off 40 and 30 percent in July and August respectively, he says.

Atwood says his share of the state’s lobster market is about 10 percent.

“Shedders were hard to find in July,” Atwood says. “Maybe there’s been a shift in the time of shedding. There was more winter runoff this year — steady and strong — and a lot of rain in the spring and October.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen brown water around the island.”

Ocean storms play a big role, too, says Atwood, and all factors may be combining to set the industry back, maybe to where it was in the 1970s, when landings totaled around 20 million pounds.

In early October, before a powerful Northeast storm pounded the coast, Atwood says the catch was showing significant signs of improvement. Once the weather patterns pass, the increase in landings would likely continue, he says.

Boat price then was $4.25 per pound, and lobsters were retailing locally for about $6.50 a pound.

Portland Shellfish’s Holden says ex-vessel prices in October were 50 to 75 cents per pound higher than in 2004.

Lobster harvests are down in the rest of New England, too, Atwood says. A few years ago, when a drastic decline in the lobster population in Long Island Sound was blamed on pollution, warm water temperatures and oxygen depletion in the water, the state of New York offered to buy out lobster licenses and boats, Atwood says.

“Then things started to pick up again this spring, and the fishermen just aren’t there,” he says.

In Massachusetts, the second largest domestic producer, fishermen were getting $4.75 to $5.25 a pound in October, says Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. In 2004, the state’s nearly 1,500 licensed lobstermen landed 11 million pounds worth $49.3 million. The figures are comparable to the previous year, Adler says.

“The price has stayed up and the catch is down,” Adler says. “So far it’s not been so good, but it’s too early to tell if it’s going to be a down season overall.” He expects the catch will pick up in November and December, as it has traditionally.

“The divers are telling us that they see lobsters on the bottom but they’re not potting [going into the traps],” Adler says. “It’s tough. We have to wait for them to come to us, rather than us going after them like with other fisheries.”

“You see a lot of long faces here in September, but that changes by December,” Adler says.

He concurs with Atwood that storms play a big factor in the catch, especially Nor’easters.

“And there’s predators, too,” Adler says. “Cod fish and striped bass will eat lobsters by the dozen. When the cod population went down, the lobsters picked up. They eat smaller lobsters than what we can land. And that has a bearing on the future of the industry.”

From Cape Cod south the industry continues to see hard times. Shellfish disease has latched onto lobsters from Long Island Sound and continues to move slowly north. The disease destroys the lobster’s visual appeal, but does not affect the meat.

Shellfish disease has not threatened lobsters in northern waters, says Atwood.

“Shell disease has always been around here,” Atwood says. “In Maine it’s been a constant 1 to 3 percent of the lobster population. It may be the water temperature or other things in the environment. I first saw it years ago in Canada; it was inshore and in a [lobster] pound.”

The market for processed lobster is on a roll, especially frozen product. Holden moves 2 million pounds a year of processed and frozen lobster, mostly through parent company Inland Seafoods of Atlanta. His Claw Island brand consists of flash-frozen lobster meat and tails.

Canadian companies also play an important role in marketing processed lobster, says Adler.

“The Canadians will come down and buy culls and softshells, which don’t ship well, and then process, freeze and send their products all over the world,” he says.

“It’s totally expanded the range of the lobster industry in the past five years.”

In early October, Canadian processors were buying softshells at $4.90 to $5.15 a pound. That’s up from 2004 prices of $4.25, and 2003 prices of $3.75.

Atwood ships about 1 million pounds overseas each year, primarily to France, Italy and Spain. Processed product has expanded the European market for lobster in the past few years, he says.

“They’ve added a great deal of improved quality to the market,” he says.

— S.Z.H.


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