PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Most Maine lobstermen have resumed pulling their traps after many of them tied up their boats last week in an effort to ease a glut that has driven down prices.
Prices for both fishermen and consumers plummeted after soft-shell lobsters began showing up in abundance earlier than normal.
Fishermen have been getting roughly $2 to $2.50 a pound for their catches, which is comparable to prices from 20 or more years ago. Some retailers have been selling small soft-shell lobsters for under $4 a pound.
To reduce the supply, thousands of lobstermen along Maine's long jagged coast tied up their boats for several days last week. Entire harbors fell silent.
Fishermen are reeling under the low prices, but can't afford to not to fish, longtime fisherman Brian McLain of New Harbor said while pulling traps Tuesday.
"It's a disaster, that all I can tell you," he said. "We're just going to have to suffer through it, I guess."
The lobster industry in Maine and New England has been suffering under a simple rule of economics: Too much supply and too little demand.
The catches came on strong weeks earlier than usual this spring when hard-shell lobster began shedding and making their way toward shore and into fishermen's traps. Soft-shell lobsters, or "shedders," for the most part are too fragile to be shipped long distances, and most are trucked to processors in Canada, which turn them into meat and frozen products.
But processors haven't been able to take large volumes of Maine lobsters because they have a backlog of Canadian-caught lobsters or aren't yet geared up to handle the influx.
Canadian processors typically don't buy large amounts of Maine-caught soft-shell lobsters until late July or August, said Russell Jacob, the owner of Westmorland Fisheries in Cap-Pele, New Brunswick. There have simply been too many lobsters too early in the season, he said.
"The good thing is there's no shortage of lobsters, but the marketplace can only handle so much," he said.
As lobstermen return to work, they've been getting paid about $2 to $2.50 a pound for their catch. Neal Workman, head of The Fisheries Exchange, a Biddeford company that tracks market information for the lobster industry, said he feared prices would be even lower than that when lobstermen went back to work this week.
"I was afraid they were going to go through the basement, but apparently the prices have settled where they were last week," he said.
The industry needs to come up with a plan on what to do if the situation repeats itself next year, said Dana Rice, a lobster dealer from Gouldsboro. Not only has Maine's catch gone up in recent years — it topped 100 million pounds for the first time last year — but the lobsters have been showing up in traps earlier in the season.
"We've been getting shedders earlier and earlier for the past 15 years," Rice said.