At Annual Forum, Fishermen Grapple with El Nino’s Effect on Lobster

Mar 4, 2016

Hundreds of commercial fishermen are gathering at the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum this weekend in Rockport.

A number of seminars on fisheries management are being offered, but what fishermen are expressing concerns about are the warming effects of El Nino on Maine waters.

After a record-breaking lobster catch last year of nearly half a billion dollars, fishermen say they’re worried about predictions that the peak lobster harvest could come early this year and drive prices down.

As hundreds of fishermen gathered Friday morning for the annual meeting of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, or MLA, there was a lot of talk about last year’s record catch of more than 120 million pounds and a per-pound price that crept above $4 per pound — a number that no one had seen for eight years.

But as Patrice McCarron, the group’s executive director, prepared the crowd for its first speaker, she brought up a new potential threat facing the industry.

“The MLA board’s been talking about this for a while, we just got the predictions that there’s a 50-50 chance that it’s going to be an early season,” McCarron said as she introduced the keynote speaker.

Early season: two words that none of the lobster fishermen, or fisherwomen, wanted to hear. McCarron said her members prefer the more typically timed season that starts building in July at about the same time that summer tourism is gaining momentum.

Other lobstermen in the room said they could recall the last early catch four years ago that dropped the boat price for lobster by 16 percent. McCarron said the industry will just have to respond as best as it can.

“With this El Nino, this crazy mild winter — let’s face it, we’re going to have some shedders, probably more of them and sooner than we want them, so the board felt it was extremely important that we as harvesters do everything we can to land the best produce that we can,” she said. “It’s a tricky product to work with, the price often doesn’t hold with it, so our job is to give the dealers as good a product as we can to work with to get through the supply chain.”

“What it means is we won’t have a home for that product in June,” said David Cousens, the president of the MLA.

Cousens says he has seen early seasons before that are preceded by marked warming water temperatures, which make the lobster want to move closer to shore. Water temperature are currently 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual, according to scientists with the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

The crustaceans move to shallow water to shed their shells and are eagerly sought by many Mainers who prefer the new-shell or soft-shell lobsters, which fetch a lower price than their hard-shell counterparts.

While that may be good for consumers, Cousens said it’s not good for big lobster processors, who buy millions of pounds of Maine lobster each year.

“When they first shed they’re weak and they don’t ship well live market, so most of them have to go to a processor,” Cousens said. “So when that happens and you have them early, you don’t have the processing capability to handle the product because Canada is not ready to take them yet. Maine is coming up in processing and there’s more processing plants in Maine, but it depends upon the amount of volume you get early and that’s scary. I mean we don’t want to see a lot of volume of soft-shell lobsters until the middle of July.”

Although marine biologists told the forum that early lobster catches do not necessarily trigger a drop in price, few were encouraged by that consolation.

The three-day 41st annual Fishermen’s Forum will wrap up Saturday evening.