Maine Lobstermen Suffer: Market Drops, Fuel Rises

The fourth of an occasional series called "The Money Map," which looks at how global economic forces are shaping the economies of America's hometowns.

Bob Baines of Spruce Head, Maine, has seen his lobster catch drop from around 1,000 pounds a day to about 300. Lobstering is a cyclical fishery. But last season, the overall catch was down 12 million pounds.

Nobody knows the reasons behind the drop — but it has come at a bad time. Baines says that in the past five years, his bait costs have more than doubled. And fuel prices are probably at least three times higher over the same period, he said.

"But also traps have gone up significantly — buoys, rope — they're all made of oil products," Baines said. "And our [catch] price is a little bit lower than it was last year."

Higher sales prices for his catch would help, but Baines says he also would like to see lobster dealers sell more. That, however, is not the case.

As Susan Sharon from Maine Public Radio in Portland tells Steve Inskeep, restaurateurs, like Steve DiMillo of DiMillo's Floating Restaurant, aren't selling as much lobster as they used to.

"We put stronger emphasis on other seafoods, on Black Angus steaks and our Italian meals," DiMillo said.

"We want to sell a wider variety of foods to appeal to a wider audience. The lobster entrees used to be close to 40 percent of sales of our meals, and now it's in the high 20s."

That's not good for fishermen like Baines. Dave Cousens, longtime president of the Maine Lobsterman's Association, says the key is lowering their overhead.

That can be done, Cousens says, through efficiencies such as spending fewer days on the water, driving boats at slower speeds and being more strategic in using bait. Also, Cousens advocates stopping the catch in July and August when lobster shells are soft — which limits how far they can be safely shipped.

A shorter season, Cousens believes, would limit demand, increase supply, raise prices — and quite possibly rescue the lobster trade.

Susan Sharon reports for Maine Public Radio.

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