A two-month-old in lobsterman Elmer Beal’s hand - Photo by B. Beal
A two-month-old in lobsterman Elmer Beal’s hand - Photo by B. Beal
The large volume of small lobsters caught in lobster traps bodes well for the future, though the economics of price continue to cause concern for the industry

- Kathleen Reardon, Maine DMR

In 2012, coastal waters got unusually warm much earlier than normal, triggering lobsters to shed their hard shells early and grow soft new ones. Record early-season catches of shedders resulted in a glut of lobsters that sent prices paid to fishermen into a nosedive.

The glut translated into some deals for consumers, but the biggest impact was on those trying to make a living fishing for lobster.

There was no shortage of lobsters - Maine lobstermen hauled in 123 million pounds in 2012 - but Canadian factories, where most of the catch is processed into frozen seafood, couldn't keep up with the catch and dealers along the Maine coast stopped buying or were paying rock-bottom prices to lobstermen, many of whom were losing money every time they went out to haul.

This year looks more normal, with water temperatures nearest the coast cooler than last year, according to Carl Wilson, the chief scientist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Shedders began to show up in mid-July, which is what lobstermen expect. The shedding season will probably peak in August, according to fishermen down on the Rockland wharves.

But the prices lobstermen are getting for their catch remain below normal. Not as low as last year, but still low. The price of bait and fuel remains about the same.

Maine lobster dealers were paying fishermen a full price of between $2.20 and $2.45 a pound for shedders, up and down the coast, earlier this week. That price is down from $2.40 to $2.60 two weeks ago.

"In 2005, they were getting $3 a pound and fuel and bait were cheaper," said Joanne Campbell, a Rockland lobster dealer whose business, J & J Lobster, has over 10 people on the payroll and runs two lobster smacks to the islands to buy lobster. Campbell estimates the business buys from 80 to 100 lobstermen, including offshore lobstermen who fish in winter.

"It's definitely harder to make a living, now," said Campbell.

It was once enough for lobstermen to know the wind and tides and how lobsters moved around on the bottom. It takes much more to be a successful fisherman now. Lobstermen, who are notoriously well-informed about the biology and management of their fishery, now find themselves having to understand international marketing and product branding.

In early July, a new law passed that collects license fees from lobstermen, lobster dealers and lobster processors to fund the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, a professional marketing group that will be formed this September. It will be made up of four fishermen, three dealers and two members of the public, as well as Commissioner Patrick Keliher from of the Maine Department of Marine Fisheries and George Gervais, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. The objective of the collaborative is to invest in finding new international markets for lobsters.

Most lobstermen realize that marketing the catch is essential, but some are unconvinced by past performance of marketing initiatives and wonder if their money will be well spent.

"We've been paying for this since '97 or '96," a Down East lobsterman told Keliher at a recent forum in Rockland. "And not getting much out of it."

"There is no guarantee this will work, either," said Keliher, adding that the collaborative will have a five-year life span and can be dissolved earlier if it is ineffective. They are primed to spend big money on the effort: $1.5 million next year to expand lobster into the international market.

One of the big complaints among lobstermen and dealers is that there are not enough processers in the state. Keliher said getting more processors operating in Maine is the key to success, but Linda Bean, a lobster buyer who has a processing plant in Rockland and continues to climb in prominence in the processing industry, said her problem has been finding labor willing to work in her Rockland factory, because, she said, midcoast people would "rather be on welfare."
Green Crab Invasion -

The European green crab (Carcinus maenas), which was released into coastal waters from the ballast water carried by European sailing vessels in the early 19th century, has been one of the most destructive invaders along the Maine coast. Each small crab can eat up to 40 clams a day.

"I am also seeing many more green crabs in the rocky intertidal and in the mudflats this year than I have in quite a while," said Brian Beal, the director of the University of Maine Marine Field Station, who has been studying green crabs for almost 30 years.

"I'm also seeing a lot of green crabs, both in the subtidal where the lobsters are and in the soft-bottom intertidal, in the Freeport area," said Beal, who is working with the town on the invasion. The clam population has been decimated in Freeport and researchers are hauling in study traps chock full of the invasive crabs.

Green crabs also prey on mussels, scallops and juvenile lobsters. Now lobstermen are hauling them up from 25 feet to 80 feet deep, where they haven't seen them before, raising concerns that green crabs are now taking over lobster habitat on the bottom.

Massive Gorilla Hair -

Lobstermen are pulling up traps covered with a thick brown algae this summer that is weighing down lobster traps and clogging gear. They call it gorilla hair (Desmarestia viridus). It isn't new, but some lobstermen are seeing more than usual, balling up four feet thick on their haul ropes.

"Its intolerable," said a lobsterman from Beals, near Jonesport. "Nothing eats it. It's acidic and just sits on the lobsters. It's the worst we have had it. It's held in place by suction cups. And there's sea fleas in it the size of my finger nail."

"There's more than I've seen before," said a lobsterman who fishes near Rockport. "It takes time to get it off the gear."

Unusually high and low tides could be the culprit as the alga gets detached and washed around, said Brian Beal, a marine ecologist who is the director of the University of Maine's Marine Field Station.

Lobster Shell Disease -

"Five years ago, we didn't see shell disease," said a lobsterman from the St. George peninsula at a Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) forum.

Lobster shell disease is caused by a bacteria that rots the shell, but it appears to researchers that the lobster must already be weakened in some way for the bacteria to get a foothold. It showed up first in Kittery in 2003. Now it is found throughout the Maine lobster fishing grounds. About one percent of lobsters are affected.

Ten years ago, one in every thousand Maine lobsters had shell disease, according to Carl Wilson, the DMR chief biologist. Now, it's increased to five in a thousand.

"It is nowhere close to the levels observed in Southern New England, with extremes of 30% in some areas," said DMR lobster scientist Kathleen Reardon

When lobsters shed their old shell, it often sheds the problem, although discoloration on the new shell is common. The disease can kill lobsters if it's bad enough.

It's related to warmer water in some way, said Wilson, noting that a 30-year warming trend is under way, with eight out of the last ten years showing the warmest water on record.

Wilson said it has had no commercial effect in Maine and does not affect the quality of the lobster meat.

Not yet, said lobstermen on the Rockland wharves.

Short Eggers Increasing -

For a lobster to be legally kept in Maine, the main shell must be at least 3-1/4 inches long, from the back of the eye socket to the beginning of the tail. And it can't be longer than five inches. Lobstermen use a metal guage to measure the lobsters.

Reproductive females always get thrown overboard.

Known as berried lobsters or eggers, reproductive female lobsters are illegal to catch and keep in Maine. They carry anywhere from 6,000 to 100,000 eggs outside their bodies and under their tails for nine to eleven months before eggs hatch out as larvae to drift in the water before settling down to the bottom and becoming a tiny version of an adult. Scientists estimate that only one-tenth of one percent of eggs that hatch will survive to get caught by a lobsterman and end up on a plate.

Warmer ocean waters have speeded up reproductive development, according to the chief biologist with the Maine DMR, Carl Wilson. Overcrowding does not appear to be a factor.

"It's dramatic," a Penobscot Bay lobsterman said. "We are getting egg lobsters a half inch to three quarters of an inch below gauge."

The past five years have shown large increases.

"The midcoast is seeing a 10-percent increase in short lobsters bearing eggs," said Wilson. In Massachusetts Bay, short eggers have increased 45 percent, he said.