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The Maine Lobster Industry Recognizes Impending Problems and is Acting Now to Implement Better Management Strategies

The ability to recognize a problem before it ever begins is a trait that every industry would benefit from. This is an invaluable characteristic that allows businesses to thrive and continue providing high quality products for their consumers, while keeping workers satisfied. The seafood industry has its fair share of unsustainable methods that ignore detrimental effects on the environment, the product, and the industry workers. However, there numerous fisheries that have the gift of foresight and are able to prevent predicaments before they ever happen. The Maine lobster industry is one such fishery and regulators intend to keep it strong and vibrant.

Maine lobster
Maine lobster makes a delectable treat for any seafood lover.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Dana Moos.

Maine lobster is a widely loved American favorite when it comes to shellfish. In contrast to many other wild fisheries, Maine lobster landings have increased dramatically over the last several decades. This would seem to be a good thing – but once we look a little closer, we realize there are problems down the road for this beloved fishery. Fortunately, regulators are taking notice now, while the fishery is still healthy, and working towards adopting better practices that will preserve the future of the Maine lobster fishery. By exploring what those problems are and what industry regulators are likely to do about them, we can get a better idea of the overall issue.

Problem 1: Excess product drives down prices

Last year’s catch in Maine was just shy of 126 million pounds, pulling in over $364 million. By comparison, the 1988 catch of 21.7 million pounds seems miniscule. At first glance, these numbers might appear to be great news for the state and for fishermen. After all, higher landings means the population is doing well and fishermen are making money – or does it?

To understand why regulators are concerned, we have to dig a little deeper. The Maine lobster haul is higher than ever before, but this is actually a big problem in more ways than one.

Any industry understands that when you have an excess amount of the same product but the demand remains the same, the price-per-unit is driven down in order to sell the surplus. In the years between 2004 and 2007, price per pound averaged above $4, with a peak in 2005 of $4.63. However, as the overall catch increased the next few years, the per pound price has fluctuated and dropped down to just $2.89 for 2013.

This might be great news for consumers, as lobster prices are lower than ever. However, it is bad news for fishermen; each vessel still has to pay the same amount for fuel, bait, and workers, while contending with a lower profit margin. If prices continue to drop, we may see more fishermen switching to a different fishery altogether – why catch a product that will eventually cost more to haul in than sell?

Problem 2: Continuing sustainability

One of the major concerns of fishery regulators is the sheer number of lobsters that are being caught. We’ve seen in the past that many fisheries suffer from boom and bust cycles, such as the shrimping industry in Maine. The perfect idea behind a sustainable seafood fishery is to maintain a profit margin to meet demand while preventing a boom that would inevitably lead to a bust.

If a bust or population crash were to occur for the Maine lobster fishery, thousands of fishermen would be out of a job, the state of Maine would lose an incredibly profitable industry, and consumers would no longer be able to enjoy the delectable meat of the favored shellfish. Additionally, there may be numerous other economic and ecological impacts that we don’t yet understand.

The Maine lobster fishery has a looming threat that could further endanger sustainability – the “latency issue”. There are roughly 6,000 permits issued for lobster fishing, about one-third of which are not being used. If these latent fishermen were to suddenly start fishing, it could put a tremendous pressure on the lobster population, perhaps adding the final weight to tip the scale in favor of a bust.

Problem 3: The nuisance of warming ocean temperatures

We already know that the ocean temperatures along the East Coast, and especially the Gulf of Maine, are changing rapidly. Coastal economies are dependent upon their fisheries and are thus tied to these changes. Maine lobsters are no exception; they typically seek out the warmer coastal waters in spring to molt, or shed their outer shell in order to grow a new, bigger one. When the lobsters are in the process of molting, they have a soft shell that eventually hardens. These “soft-shelled” crabs are often preferred by some diners because they have extra tender meat and the shell is easy to break into; on the flip side, hard-shelled lobsters offer up a heartier meal with more meat.

The 2013 lobster season saw a flush of soft-shelled lobsters in May and June, rather than the normal July – September season. These catches competed with hard-shell lobsters, which survive being shipped much more easily. Processing factories were simply maxed out and fishermen had to deal with a high catch of soft-shells. These soft lobsters can’t survive long after being caught and fishermen had nowhere to send them, leading to a loss in profits. This early-season flush of soft-shells is very likely related to warming ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine. Warmer temperatures earlier in the year means the lobsters’ normal molting cycle was offset, causing them to molt too early.

The other problem with changing ocean temperatures is the distribution of lobster populations. It is difficult to predict how and where the lobsters will follow the warm pockets versus cold habitats. One region may have a healthy population one year with ideal temperatures, but the next year they may have nothing at all. The high variability can be expected in any fishery, but the added effects of overall increasing temperatures means that we now have to predict the unpredictable – how the lobster populations will change along with the rising temperatures.

Maine lobster
Even with the industry at its height in terms of catch, regulators are taking notice that there are problems and are acting now to solve them.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Tony Fischer.

Taking action now

There is a bright ray of hope despite all these issues – we are considering them now, while the industry is at its height. We have learned from the plight of other fisheries and are actively trying to understand the problems and fix them before a collapse occurs. Industry regulators have met recently to discuss these issues and develop a plan of action. These outcomes are likely to include some or all of the following:

  • Placing a limit on the number of permits allowed and the catch per limit. Once the sheer number of lobsters caught decreases, not only will market demand drive up the price once again, but the wild populations will experience less fishing pressure. In the long run, fishermen will benefit from higher prices and a more sustainable product.
  • Creating a renewal system each year to weed out inactive or “latent” permits. This would eliminate the threat of fishermen suddenly increasing fishing pressures.
  • Communicating effectively and collaborating with researchers on continuously changing ocean conditions. By understanding the whole picture of the ocean’s ecosystems, we are better able to develop management plans for any fishery. Past examples have shown us that such scientific partnerships can help create extremely profitable and sustainable fisheries.
  • Develop a plan for adapting quickly to future trends and employing effective management strategies. This encompasses all the previous bullets – a proper management system is essential for continuing any fishery. Since regulators understand the threats to Maine’s lobster fishery, they have all the tools available to implement better strategies.

We will soon see the outcomes of these meetings, which will hopefully preserve the Maine lobster fishery so that our children’s children may enjoy this succulent treat. Although we know that these problems are looming on the horizon, it is excellent to know that we are striving to conserve this precious resource before we experience any further down trends. In the meantime, you and your clients can enjoy wholesale Maine lobster from seafood distributors certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, such as Pucci Foods.

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