News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 16, 2012
Lobster industry faces continued uncertainty
Protests resolved in Canada; glut remains

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Thick fog on the fish pier

If lobstermen haven’t been put off from fishing by low boat prices, then the thick fog that hung around most of last week wasn’t going to stop them either. Stonington’s harbor is still hopping this August.

Photo by Lyra Fuchs Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Jessica Brophy

On Thursday, August 9, Green Head Lobster was unable to purchase lobster from fishermen because of the protests and blockades by lobster fishermen in Canada, said owner Hugh Reynolds.

Protests by fishermen in New Brunswick, whose fishing season opened on Monday, included blockades of processing plants early last week. Several trucks carrying Maine lobsters were escorted back to the border, according to a Maine Department of Marine Resources press release.

Reynolds said the situation created a backlog of product, so the dealer took a day off from buying. That same day, Thursday, a New Brunswick judge granted a 10-day injunction, barring protestors from blocking business at processing plants, according to reports by the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Since then, the “problem has resolved,” said Reynolds, who said the last time there was problems getting product into Canada was right after September 11, 2001.

The Associated Press reported on Saturday that the Maritime Fishermen Union reached an agreement on a fixed price from lobster processors for Canadian lobster, at $3.03 (U.S.) for process-grade lobsters and $3.53 for live-grade lobster, with the union paying for about $.25 of each pound’s cost and the rest coming from the processors.

When asked what the impact of price-setting in Canada would be on local lobster prices, Reynolds said he didn’t know. “It really doesn’t help us when there are subsidies and artificial prices messing with the market,” said Reynolds. “It could be a problem, I don’t know.”

Maine Lobstermen’s Association issued a statement on August 8 rejecting protest “methods that disrupt, threaten, interfere with or otherwise impose obstacles on international commerce.” The statement went on to say that “Open and fair trade between our countries is essential to the success of both lobster industries.”

In a recent phone interview, MLA Education Coordinator Annie Tselikis said the flow of lobster over the border goes both ways, and has for a long time. “Canadian lobster comes into Maine when our catch is low,” said Tselikis. “And in the summer months, our lobster goes to Canada for processing.”

The trade goes both ways, and needs to go both ways, said Tselikis. “It’s frustrating to see fishermen in Canada referring to Maine lobster as ‘cheap,’” said Tselikis.

On Sunday, Governor Paul LePage focused his weekly radio message on the state of the lobster industry. “Processors are paying only a fraction of the true cost due to the abundance of lobster and lack of processing capacity here in Maine,” said LePage. “We need more processing capacity.”

The governor said the lack of processors in the state is due to the “high costs of doing business in Maine” and went on to discuss ways of lowering energy prices for businesses.

Maine’s three largest processors, Cozy Harbor in Portland, Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster in Rockland and Shucks Lobster in Richmond are about to be joined by a fourth major processor, Sea Hag Seafood in Tenant’s Harbor, according to an August 13 article in Portland Press Herald. Sea Hag Seafood is due to open in the near future.

However, Tselikis doesn’t see increasing Maine’s processing capacity as a “silver bullet” for harvester’s low boat prices.

“If the processed lobster is sitting in cold storage in Maine or if it’s sitting in storage in Canada, there is still a glut with no market,” said Tselikis.

“In the last five years our landings have increased by 30 million pounds [in the U.S.],” she continued. “It’s amazing that the marketplace has been able to do what it has, but we can’t just keep adding lobster to the market.”

Tselikis said she supports “broad-based marketing” and Project Maine Lobster, the Lobster Advisory Council’s efforts to launch a major generic branding and marketing effort for Maine lobster.

“We need to know our product,” said Tselikis. “And we need the world to know it, whether that’s in Kansas City or Dubai.”

A Lobster Advisory Council meeting will be held Thursday, August 16, at 4 p.m. at the Department of Transportation Building in Augusta. The meeting will discuss possible changes to the industry to address current market price.