photo: Eat Maine FB page
Well folks, this is an interesting summer to be in Maine. Because of a glut of spring lobsters caught, an abysmally low price for the catch and the fact that lobster is now cheaper than freakin' bologna right now, we have what is called an unspoken "tie-up." This is a fascinating chess move where lobstermen up and down the coast refuse to go hauling, but are forbidden to collude or pressure anyone from going out. The few folks I've spoken to who will naturally remain anonymous say that despite what you may think, this has been very peaceful. No trap molestation, no underground wars. These people work HARD and they're getting screwed. So do your part, buy some lobster this week; let's run down this glut, run up the price so these guys can go out fishing again! I'm including a column by Working Waterfront's Philip Conkling here, which explains how this has all gone down.
The Great Silent Lobster Tie Up
July 12, 2012 Column Long View
by Philip Conkling
This morning on Vinalhaven was eerily silent as the sky lightened in the east. No gulls keened, no ravens croaked and no muffled diesels thrummed on their way out of Carver’s Harbor. On the way to the morning ferry, little knots of lobstermen stood on the post office steps, in front of the Odd Fellows Hall and at the large parking lot where lobstermen park their trucks on their way to their boats.
As the 7 a.m. ferry pulled away from its pen, another half dozen lobster boats were similarly frozen in place in Sands Cove, along with a dozen more in Old Harbor and a few others at Dyer Island. When the ferry passed through Lairy’s Narrows and churned its way across West Penobscot Bay, no North Haven lobster boats were hauling off Crabtree Point. All the way down the bay past the lobster harbors of Owls Head, the Weskeag, and Sprucehead, the horizon was completely empty, as was the case from Rockland to Rockport to Camden on the western shore. It would be an exaggeration to say that the scene was like the empty skies the day after 9-11, but there is a similarity.
So how did this unprecedented cooperation among fishermen throughout a huge lobster fishing area happen? No one is saying, and for a good reason. It’s called the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which prohibits collusion among businesses on practices that influence price. Since virtually all Maine lobstermen are independent businessmen, the law theoretically prohibits any lobstermen from talking to another and agreeing not to go fishing. That’s called “restraint of trade” and led to the conviction of Leslie Dyer, the first head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in federal court in 1958. It was a thunderously unpopular verdict, but has left a bitter enough legacy during the last half century that even talkative lobstermen run silent and deep when it comes to any mention of tie up.
The issue, however, is sensitive enough that Maine’s Commissioner of Marine Resources, Pat Kelliher, just released a statement cautioning any fishermen from issuing threats of force against any other fishermen who might continue to haul their traps. In the deafening silence of how the great silent lobster tie up has been be achieved, the “coconut wireless” has been unusually active. One such story is that a fisherman in one unnamed harbor hired a small plane to conduct surveillance to find out which boats were still fishing. Woe unto him.
The real explanation for the unprecedented inactivity in lobster fishing communities along much of the Maine coast is both simple and complicated. The simple explanation is price. Lobsters that a year ago were fetching only $2.50 per pound—a historically low price for this time of year, have fallen in many harbors to as low as $1.50 per pound. Almost nothing in the universe can create unanimity among lobstermen, but lobster prices have not been at such a low point for approximately 30 years. With prices this low, it is simply not worth leaving the dock.
The more complicated part of the story concerns why prices have plummeted to this abyssal level. And there the explanations are varied, each containing a piece of the truth. To begin with, the lobster shedder season started six weeks early this year in southern Maine after an eerie warm spell that lasted most of March. Lobster processors buy shedders to sell as claw and knuckle or lobster tail packs because they are cheaper than hard shells. Not only have the shedders come early, but their percentage of the landings has also increased—upwards of 70 percent in some harbors throughout May and June. Hard shell lobsters command as much as $2 more a pound than shedders, so typically in June, a lobstermen’s average price for his catch might hover around $3.50 per pound with a mix of shedders and hard shells. After the Fourth of July, when upwards of 90 percent of lobsters are shedders and their price is so depressed, well…you have to decide whether it is worth it to go fishing.
Added to this unhappy state of affairs, is that a number of lobster processors in Atlantic Canada have gone under in recent years, which has further reduced the demand for Maine’s shedders. Canadian lobstermen, who only fish in early spring and late fall, also reportedly landed larger catches than usual and filled much of the existing Canadian demand.
Then there is the state of the general economy. Few people realize that two of the biggest markets for Maine lobsters are the all-you-can-eat cruise lines and national restaurant chains like Red Lobster. The cruise lines have not distinguished themselves this year after the Costa Concordia ran aground in the Mediterranean and Seafood Business News recently published a story detailing how Red Lobster is overhauling its menu to appeal to more cost-conscious diners, which cannot bode well for the lobster industry.
And now for the real kicker: after many decades of self-imposed lobster conservation measures by the lobster industry, the population of lobsters crawling about the bottom of every bay, sound, thorofare, and tidal river is at a historic high. Just when the demand for Maine lobsters has slackened, the supply has gone off the charts, with the inevitable result of declining prices. So lobstermen have to decide it they want to address the fundamental structural business issue they face: they fish hardest for lobsters when the seasonal prices are lowest. In the long run, prices are only affected either by increasing demand—a long and expensive process—or by reducing supply—a painful and discouraging process. There are no silver bullets.
Almost three years ago, the governor’s lobster task force recommended a joint public-private strategy to invest in the “Maine” part of the state’s tarnished lobster brand, which has many imitators nationally (including fraudulent ones) and a lackluster reputation internationally. But lobstermen were just recovering from the shock of the onset of the Great Recession and balked at the recommendation of a five cent a pound levy on landed, brokered and processed lobsters to create a significant marketing and branding fund. The Lobster Advisory Council has recently resurrected a discussion about this strategy at meetings along the coast during the past month.
With lobstermen caught between the pincher of low prices and the crusher of increased fuel and bait costs, few expect to see a groundswell of enthusiasm for making a new investment under current price conditions, which are unlikely to improve very much anytime soon, or to reduce fishing days during the shedder season or some combination thereof. But then, you have to ask yourself, when is it a good time to invest in your business and brand? If you did not invest when times were good and your wallet was fat, what will you do when your back is against the wall?
Philip Conkling is President and Founder of the Island Institute based in Rockland, Maine.
Columns about the sub-culture of lobstering that K. Stephens has collaborated on with Maine lobstermen and guest bloggers.