PORTLAND, Maine — Maine lobstermen hauled in the least valuable lobster catch in a decade last year, when a decrease in price per pound and higher operational costs gave them less incentive to get out on the water.
The $389 million haul, a 47% drop from 2021’s record-shattering catch, was the result of both fewer pounds of lobster caught and a lower market price, according to data released Friday by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The size of the haul — 98 million pounds — was nearly identical to the 10-year low hit in 2020, when lobstermen also scaled back operations, then because of the closure of traditional markets as a result of the pandemic.
The following year, prices jumped to an all-time high of $6.71 per pound, attributed to pent-up demand of customers with money to spend, which led to more fishing and a larger haul — 108 million pounds. The state of the economy last year had the reverse effect, industry insiders say, bringing the price of lobster down to $3.97 per pound, a five-year low.
Kristan Porter, a lobsterman from Cutler and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, laid the blame for the drop in price per pound squarely on the economy.
“In 2021, coming out of the pandemic, people had money to spend. They were out and about, buying lobster. Things were good,” he said. “Then last year, inflation hit, the economy not as great. People were spending more money on groceries and to fill up their car. They weren’t doing the extras, so demand (for lobster) was low.”
And when demand drops, so does the price.
Annie Tselikis, director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, concurred.
“In 2021 seafood prices across America reached an all-time high, and lobster was no exception,” she said in an email. “Emerging from the pandemic, consumers were looking for ways to celebrate, and they chose luxury seafood items as part of that experience. Fast-forward to 2022 and consumers had started to balk on the price of lobster and other high-ticket food items.
“Some restaurants chose to take lobster off of the menu or adjust their menu planning to use lobster as an ingredient rather than a featured item at the center of the plate, reducing their usage rates and demand. Market prices declined in lock-step with the decline in demand.”
When demand drops, landings slow in response, which accounts in part for the drop in volume of lobster caught last year. In 2022, lobstermen earned less per pound for their product, and at the same time paid about double for fuel and bait.
“With the price being high, guys fish a little bit harder,” Porter said. “With price being low, some guys may not fish as hard.”
The drop of roughly 10 million pounds in the haul from 2021 to 2022 didn’t overly concern him. “We dropped a little bit, but still very healthy landings,” Porter said. Additionally, he and others said that 2021, when the price of lobster skyrocketed, was the real anomaly.
At least one other factor was in play, according to Virginia Olsen, executive liaison and political director of the Maine Lobstering Union Local 207. Most American lobster is processed in Canada, she said. Early last summer, COVID-related shipping problems meant that these processors couldn’t ship the snow crab they also process to Asia, as usual. The crab sat in storage, taking up space that would normally have gone to the catch Maine lobstermen were just starting to bring in.
“We got pushed back a month for processing,” Olsen said. “That crippled our industry and the ability of our industry to move our product. It depresses your price. If there is no place for your lobster to go, you get a glut. People are trying to push product because it’s a perishable product, and they are trying to move that product as quickly as they can.”
Between the high price of bait and fuel, the low price of lobster, the processing glut, and the cost of new ropeless gear intended to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, and “This was unusually difficult year for the fishermen,” Olsen said.
In a news release, Gov. Janet Mills noted that Maine’s lobstermen faced tremendous uncertainty about the future of the fishery last year as they grappled with pending federal whale regulations and high costs for bait and fuel.
“Yet they still brought to shore nearly 100 million pounds of quality Maine lobster, which reflects this industry’s resilience when confronted with a difficult and dynamic economic environment,” she said.
As a whole, Maine’s commercial fisheries brought in $574 million worth of seafood last year. That’s still a 37% decrease from 2021, but industry officials said it’s more in line with the average $586.6 million over the last decade.
Elvers were the second most valuable fishery, followed by softshell clams and menhaden. Scallops and alewives both went up in value.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, urged people to support the coastal communities and fishermen by enjoying Maine seafood.
“The work of our harvesters, dealers and processors to sustain our resources and deliver the world’s best seafood is something for all Mainers to take pride in,” he said.
No one reached for this story was willing to speculate on what 2023 may bring. “Call me at this time next year and I’ll tell you what happened,” Porter said, laughing.