Maine's lobster harvest dropped more than 15 percent last year, according to data just released by the state Department of Marine Resources. But even if the haul was down, it's still the sixth highest on record.
Lobstermen knew from early in 2017 that the catch would probably fall off from the previous year, when they brought in a record 131 million pounds of the valuable crustacean.
"My July was pretty much nonexistent," says Curt Brown, who fishes lobster out of Portland, and works as a biologist for Ready Seafood, one of the state's largest lobster dealers. "And it was just a waiting game - slowly trickling out, and so the rest of the year... I mean the rest of the year was decent. It certainly wasn't a banner year."
It wasn't exactly a bad year, either - overall the state's lobstermen landed more than 110 million pounds of lobster - the sixth most on record. And at an average $3.91 a pound at the dock, they earned a total of more than $450 million, the fourth highest ever.
But it was the smallest haul seen since 2011. And no one in the industry says the recent boom can last forever: Scientists say their models show decline will be inevitable, as the Gulf of Maine's waters continue to warm past what recently has been an optimal range for lobster productivity.
Recent science also shows that Maine lobstermen's long-established practices for protecting fertile females add resilience to the population here. Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher says decline will come, and good management will slow its progress. But he does not believe a downward trend is establishing itself now.
"I don't think anything is going on with the resource. Not yet, there's no trend showing," he says. "We've been seven years over a hundred million pounds of landings here in the state of Maine. We were down 16 percent versus last year. But if you compare it to the four or five years previous, we're down, but not a tremendous amount."
Keliher says the landings were strongest Down East, where water temperatures, for the most part, are coldest. Not that there aren't some anomalies, with fishermen in the state's westernmost quadrants still landing near-record hauls, he says, but perhaps by spending more time at sea than they used to.
Keliher adds that the fishery appears to be headed farther away from the coastline. "There's certainly a spatial change in the fishery from inshore to offshore. We see the gear offshore, marine patrol is certainly spending much more time offshore than inshore. So those are things that we know are happening."
And while the fleet may be moving offshore, there's an open question about whether juvenile lobster may be as well. Data collected by Keliher's agency show that the number of juveniles settling inshore has been waning in recent years - even while egg-bearing adult females remain abundant. One theory is that more juveniles are settling in deeper, colder waters - and a two-year old project to try to document that is entering its third year.
Lead scientist Richard Wahle of the Darling Marine Center in South Bristol says last year's decline in mature lobsters correlates with a drop in inshore juvenile settlers that began in 2009. That trend continues, he says, and could presage another decline in the mature lobster harvest this year.
"There's still some uncertainty about how this will play out," Wahle says. "We're not looking at catastrophic declines - those are not in the forecast. But they are nonetheless significant and it should give the industry pause about their future."
The state is releasing landings data for some 21 commercially-harvested marine species. One bright spot: the scallop fishery, which, after severe depletion through the early 2000s, bounced back last year to levels not seen in more than two decades - almost 800,000 pounds harvested. DMR Commissioner Keliher credits that result to what he calls micro-management by his agency and the Maine-based fleet of scallop dayboats.