Opinions

In Maine, a crustacean calamity

Joanne Omang is a writer and former Washington Post reporter. She works in Maine during the summer. Her e-mail address is omangjoanne@gmail.com.

FRIENDSHIP, Maine

At 4 a.m. I knew something was wrong. It was too quiet. The pickups weren’t arriving outside; the lobstermen weren’t getting out and joking their way to the docks that flank our house; the lobster boats that crowd lovely Friendship harbor weren’t chugging out before sunrise for another day’s haul. At 7 a.m. the boats were all still there.

It turned out that most of the 933 independent and notoriously competitive licensed lobstermen of Knox County, the heart of Maine’s iconic industry, had reached an agreement to stay home last week — and they plan to haul only every other day for the rest of the summer. Many of the state’s 3,600 other lobstermen are doing the same.

The reason for this astounding turn of events is a mysterious glut of soft-shell lobsters that has driven the wholesale price to record lows here on the docks, $2 or less per pound. That’s an ominous sign for the industry, the state of Maine and for President Obama’s election prospects here.

This year’s lobster harvest could probably beat last year’s staggering record of 104 million pounds, four times what it was in 1991. That brought the state $334 million, a coastal income second only to the tourism industry that lobsters help create.

But $2 a pound won’t get some lobstermen out of bed. “Figure three-four hundred bucks a day for fuel and bait, plus pay for the sternman, and it’s just not worth going out,” one told me. Jerry is a sunbaked veteran of 40 years of lobstering; his boat is one of 40 operating from the co-op next to our place. His haul this year has been mostly soft-shell “shedders” that bring the lowest prices. They can’t survive being shipped long distances, so they have to be sold for local eating or to processing and canning plants in Canada. And those filled up in June with Canada’s own record harvest. There’s just not enough demand for the 400 to 500 pounds of lobsters that each boat can bring in every day.

No one is sure why lobsters are crowding the traps. Jerry has a popular theory: the absence of predators such as cod and sharks, which have been overfished. “It’s a cycle,” he says. “They disappear for a while and then come back.”

A better theory is global warming. Shedders usually appear in late June, when warming water spurs dormant lobsters to resume feeding. They rapidly outgrow their hard shells and molt, and the new shells take a few months to harden. This year the shedders appeared in April, two months early. Maine, like many places, had a mild winter, but marine biologist Diane Cowan, head of the Lobster Conservancy here in Friendship, has documented swiftly rising temperatures in the entire Gulf of Maine for the past dozen years.

This means the glut could presage a population crash. “When the water temperature doesn’t fall below 40 degrees for very long, lobsters don’t take enough time off from growing to have energy for reproducing,” Cowan says. The shedders stayed busy growing this winter, and as most of the catch were just barely legal size (at least 3¼-inch carapaces, the hard shell covering the lobster’s head and thorax), they probably hadn’t yet reproduced. If too many are caught before they breed, it’s only a matter of time before the population crashes.

Jerry and others dismiss Cowan’s suggestion that raising limits on what size is legal to catch could avert this disaster. They say that undersize juveniles clog every trap hauled to the surface, so lots of babies are still out there, using the ubiquitous traps as feeding stations that let them escape until they’re legal-size. Other restrictions mark and preserve egg-bearing females and the largest lobsters (with carapaces of five inches or longer), the proven breeding stock.

Still, in early July several lobstermen’s associations asked the state Department of Marine Resources to temporarily close the fishery until rising demand brings back reasonable prices. Commissioner Patrick Keliher refused, promising instead “appropriate marketing and managing strategies,” whatever that means.

Regulators hope that the problem will just go away. Maybe enough large breeding lobsters remain to keep the population going. Maybe the Gulf of Maine will cool off; it reached such warm temperatures before, if only for months, in the 1950s. Meanwhile, lobstermen like Jerry are staying home — “driving my wife crazy,” he says — facing payments on their houses and boats. Maine’s economy staggers along with the nation’s slowest income growth rate last year and few alternative jobs. For that, and their growing anxiety, lobstermen tend to blame President Obama.

The record low prices are good news for the tourists flocking to Maine’s cool, clear air in this overheated summer: They’re paying about $3.69 a pound for live lobster in stores, less than for lunch meat, and only a few dollars more in restaurants. It’s beautiful here, but the docks are too quiet. It’s keeping me awake at night.

 
Read what others are saying