This summer is shaping up to be a record season for lobster landings in Maine. That sounds like good news for a state where lobstering makes up a large part of the economy.
It may be welcome news for consumers and food retailers, but for the state's 5,000 lobstermen, it's a different story.
Hard To Make A Living
On Portland's waterfront, about five lobster boats are tied up at one of the piers. Half a dozen lobstermen stand around discussing the current problem of oversupply.
Willis Spear says he's rarely seen a more desperate situation for Maine's lobster catchers — and he's been at it for 47 years. With prices where they are, he says this is a good chance to stay off the water and catch up on other stuff.
"The price is so low that we're really not making a living," he says. "So I'm just going to attend to the business at the house until we see an increase in price."
This lobster glut comes as a result of the earlier-than-usual appearance of soft-shelled lobsters — a factor that many attribute to warmer ocean temperatures.
These softer creatures don't ship well live, so they're either consumed locally or sent to processing plants on the East Coast, where their meat is stripped to go in lobster products like chowder.
This unexpected glut, however, means the processing plants and lobster pounds — where lobstermen hold and sell the lobster — have a huge backlog to clear.
Tying Up The Boats
The result is that lobstermen like Spear are being paid nearly half the amount they were getting just a few years ago. He says the current boat price is about $2.50 a pound.
"Which is not worth going out for. I'd love to see $3, and that would be still pretty low for the expenses we have now," Spear says.
Spear says that because of the price of bait, fuel and labor, it costs him nearly $500 a day just to check his traps. He has 800 of them.
It's a predicament that has prompted lobstermen along much of the Maine coast to tie up their boats until prices improve.
Many of them have contacted Maine's Department of Marine Resources, asking that they close down the fishery. The state, however, does not have the authority to do this.
Good For Someone's Business
While lobstermen wring their hands, consumers are making the most of the low prices. At a busy intersection in South Portland, Maine native Barbara McFarlane parks her car and heads for an early lunch at Docks Seafood restaurant and market.
"We just love lobster. We're Mainers, and usually we can't afford it," she says. "It's grand to be able to afford it this year."
McFarlane is eyeing a twin lobster dinner for just under $16. Restaurant owner Bob Coppersmith says last summer, that same meal could have cost nearly $30.
The current lobster glut, he says, is bringing in about 300 customers a day — not bad for a 75-seat establishment.
"It's unbelievable. The business has been really going strong," Coppersmith says. "Everybody wants lobsters because they're at a good price. Some people are coming in a couple of times a day."
If you want to make the most of Maine's cheap lobsters, the sooner you come here the better. Experts say they've never seen soft-shelled lobsters this early in the season, and they don't know how much longer they'll be around.