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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Too Many Lobsters?

Most of you know of my love of Maine.  And my love of fresh lobster when we travel there.  They're delicious, incredibly fresh and really reasonable.  In September, we often got them for $4.50-$4.75 per pound.  Even in June this year, usually when the prices are higher, we bought them for $6.50 per pound.

The great news for consumers in Maine is that the prices of lobsters continue to drop.  They're about 70% below the norm and at an almost 30-year low for this time of year.  Again, great for consumers.  But not so great for the lobstermen.  Unfortunately for us here in PA, the big lobster bargains are confined to the Maine area.  Shipping the soft-shelled lobsters plentiful this time of year keep the prices higher here.

The main reason for this drop in price is the great increase in the number of lobsters crawling on the ocean floor--more than lobstermen have seen in ages.  This is the result of a number of things, not the least of which is the change in climate--the unusually warm winters that we've had, which increase the water temperature, making it a better environment for lobsters to grow. 

Then there's the overfishing of cod and haddock in waters off the Maine coast.  These fish used to patrol these waters in the millions--often time eating young lobsters.  Now their numbers are depleted--lowering the number of the lobsters' natural predators.

It's gotten so bad that some groups of lobstermen have agreed to not going out to fish so the demand (and prices) will rise.  There are some reports that some have even issued threats to others who continue to fish.  Most lobstermen say that selling their catch for anything less than $4/pound means they're losing money. 

The problem even carries over international lines.  Many Maine fishermen send a large amount of their catch to processors in Canada.  With the drop in price, these processors are buying even more from Maine.  Of course, this is a problem for the Canadian lobstermen, who have blockaded the gates of some processors in an attempt to keep trucks carrying Maine lobsters to enter.  A Canadian court has granted a 10-day injunction keeping protesters from blocking the gates--at least temporarily. 

It sounds like quite a mess.

But some lobstermen are turning to other sea creatures to earn them income.  With the drop in lobster prices, some are hoping to start a trend toward scallops.  Scallops used to be plentiful in the Maine waters--and are making a comeback in deeper waters--but have been a bit fished out closer to shore.  So some fishermen are taking a shot at farming scallops. 

Scallops aren't like mussels, which can be "grown" on strings.  Scallops have to be raised in large cages so they don't swim away.  Before scallops can be farmed commercially, though, state and federal regulations have to be set and you know how that can go.  But hopefully, this will provide a viable alternative to lobstermen as they wait for the lobster catch to get back to normal.

Read more about the drop in lobster prices in this Wall Street Journal article.  Read about the Canada vs. Maine lobster wars in this article from NPR and about farming scallops in another NPR article.

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