Lobstermen sound off on price, processing and labor in fisheryWarmer water, invasive species cause problems
Rockland — Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher heard from numerous fishermen about their woes on the water during his first of four scheduled meetings.
More than 50 local fishermen gathered July 9 at Oceanside High School East in Rockland to update Keliher on problems facing the lobster industry this season.
Price was the overwhelming concern, with lobster averaging $2.10 per pound.
"This is your future," Keliher told the audience. "People need to show up to these meetings." He noted that only a handful of harvesters were at the last few meetings.
"It is the fishermen that bring it to life," said Keliher, referring to the need for branding the Maine lobster industry.
"We have the best lobsters in the world," he said. Unfortunately Maine is reliant on only one of its many seafoods, rather than being more diverse, he said. Keliher said bad management and changes to the ecosystem are the reasons why the lobster industry finds itself in this predicament.
"There's enough blame to go around, but diversification is a necessity," said Keliher.
The erosion of pricing since 2008 and big changes in volume catches — 124 million pounds last year — have posed great challenges to the lobster industry, and resulted in the supply continuing to outweigh the demand.
"Our goal is to figure out how we can leave this industry better than we found it," said Keliher during the brainstorming session.
Another obstacle is the influx of green crabs, which are on the rise as the water becomes warmer.
Several fishermen said they have had dealings with the invasive species that can harm softshell lobsters.
"We are in a 30-year warming period, and things are changing," said Keliher. "This is not a good thing and we are trying to learn more."
Along with making the green crabs more prevalent, warmer water temperatures also speed up lobster development. Forty-five percent of the short females caught have eggs attached to them.
Attracting workers to conduct the processing of the seafood has presented a roadblock of sorts. Linda Bean said she would like to add a second shift at her processing facility in Rockland, however she said she cannot find enough workers who want to get off welfare and work seasonally for $8 an hour.
Bean said she has even started to process crab and other seafood in hopes of making it more attractive and extending the season.
Keliher stated that a generation of fishermen was lost with the licensing structure. He added that only 5 percent of student fishing licenses are being converted to full-time licenses. Limited entry and transferability were options mentioned.
"We have to be careful," said Keliher, speaking on the constitutionality of such changes. "The constitution says there needs to be equal access for all."
"Let fishing families be fishing families," said Richard Alley of Addison, expressing his concern over the discussion of limiting licensing.
The commissioner will be visiting with the Maritime Provinces of Canada this summer, trying to come up with some common solutions to the lobster industry problems.
"Our relationship with Canada is two-fold," said Keliher. Maine needs Canada to process the overflow of soft-shell lobsters its current facilities are unable to accommodate, and Maine needs to get its hard-shell supply from Canada.
The meeting lasted about two and a half hours.
The commissioner also plans to hold meetings in Machias, Ellsworth and Scarborough.
Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at email@example.com.