A drop in the catch of lobsters off Maine has customers paying more and fishermen concerned about the future.
Maine's harvest of lobsters was about 40% off last year's pace through September, and while October and November tend to be months of heavy lobster catch, wholesale prices have soared amid the slower supply. Live 1.25-pound lobsters were wholesaling for nearly $10 per pound in the New England market Nov. 1, an increase of nearly 20 percent from a year ago.
The drag in catch has also contributed to an uptick in price at some retail fish markets. Some stores in Maine, which is the center of the U.S. lobster industry, are selling lobsters for $12 per pound. That is about 10% more than a year ago.
The price of lobster is impacted by numerous factors, including foreign demand, beyond just the size of the catch. But such a precipitous drop in supply is bound to create "tremendous upward price pressure," said John Sackton, an industry analyst and publisher of SeafoodNews.com.
The U.S. lobster industry is facing numerous other challenges, including impending new restrictions designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. The warming of the Gulf of Maine, a body of water that is heavily fished for lobster, is another long-term concern. The industry's also struggling to compete with Canada for the lucrative Chinese export market because of trade hostilities between the U.S. and China.
The sudden lack of lobsters is following a decade of heavy supply and growing international demand that has helped keep prices steady. The state's fishermen are in jeopardy of bringing less than 100 million pounds of lobster to the docks for the first time since 2010. They broke the mark for the first time in 2011.
Catch has also been slow off Canada, which has a large fishery for the same species, Sackton said.
"The market is acting like there's a shortage, but it remains to be seen if it'll carry over into next year," Sackton said, adding that wholesale prices are at their highest point in several years. "Everyone is bidding up the price."
Fishermen attribute the slow season to what's called a "late shed." Lobster catch typically picks up when many of the crustaceans lose their old shells. That's when many lobsters reach legal size, and also when they tend to be more easily trapped. It's best for the New England fishery if the shed happens in summer, coinciding with the tourist season.
Sheila Dassat, executive director of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association, said the slow season has hit some members hard. The industry is already struggling with high bait prices and other stressors, and a lack of catch could motivate some fishermen to leave the business, she said.
Elsewhere on the coast, Maine Lobstermen's Association President Kristan Porter said fishermen have been aided by an uptick in prices at the dock, and plenty of fishermen are still optimistic about a big finish to the year.
State regulators in Maine still think there's time to salvage a strong season, but the catch will need to come on strong in November and December.
"It's too early to predict this year's final landings but we are hearing that the catch is picking up," said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.