With international and local restaurant sales drying up because of COVID-19, Seacoast lobstermen are relying more on direct sales to individual buyers.
Linda Hunt is the general manager at Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative in Seabrook. She said that at this time of year, lobster prices should be $8.50 a pound.
“I’m lucky enough, because we do have the retail store. I’m trying to get our boats $5.50 a pound,” Hunt said.
Hunt said that in the past few weeks, more people have been coming into the market, which is open Monday to Thursday from noon until 6 p.m. and Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We’ve had a very, very good turnout lately from locals and even people from, I would say probably up to half an hour, 45 minutes away,” Hunt said.
Lobstermen in New England were already facing financial insecurity because of loss of sales in China as the coronavirus swept through that country during its New Year celebration in late January.
Canadian fishermen soon flooded the market locally to offset their own losses as coronavirus spread overseas.
Then, as New Hampshire restaurant owners either closed their doors or moved to takeout and delivery on March 17, fishermen lost some more of their biggest customers.
Andy Konchek has his own lobster boat and works as a deckhand for Capt. John Borden on the Mary Baker. They fish in federal waters and typically sell their catch to Kittery Trading Post in Maine, which was deemed “non-essential” and closed last week.
Konchek said they have hauled in 300 of their traps because of the loss in sales. They are still going out for a limited catch and selling lobsters and Jonah crabs directly to customers from Pierce Island in Portsmouth to keep afloat financially.
Konchek said people who come to pick up lobsters and crabs are maintaining social distancing and are grateful to be able to buy directly from fishermen at boat prices. They are charging $5.50 a pound for lobster but might raise the prices as demand grows.
“Everybody appreciates that we’re there for them,” Konchek said.
Konchek was selling lobsters from the commercial boat pier at Peirce Island in Portsmouth on Wednesday. He has a community Facebook page called “Fresh Lobster Portsmouth, NH” where people can place orders in advance if they want.
Brian Tarbell of Dover was one of Konchek and Borden’s customers last week. He said local fishermen need support now more than ever.
“They work a tough job for us and are a vital part of our economy on the Seacoast so we need to pay it forward so when things get back to normal, they will still be going strong,” Tarbell said.
Capt. Bob Tonkin, who runs Captain Bob’s Lobster Tours & Fishing Charters in Hampton with his sister, Capt. Jeanne Bailey, said COVID-19 has affected many of the larger commercial fishermen as well as his business.
“They catch a lot of lobsters. The little stand on the side of the road or from their truck is a fraction of what they catch. That’s not enough to pay three guys to go out there,” Tonkin said.
Tonkin said his business has already been affected because people are cancelling their May tours. He doesn’t blame them.
On Tuesday, Tonkin was driving a truck, hauling flour from western Massachusetts to Pembroke. He said he is not the only one who is falling back on other skill sets to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, not working on the water is hard.
“I go clamming every Saturday just to keep my sanity,” Tonkin said.
He also looks forward to June, July and August.
“It’s going to be a good summer if we ever get there,” Tonkin said.