PORTLAND, MAINE -- Lobster has always been king in Maine, but even paupers can afford it these days as prices have dropped to levels normally seen on bologna.

A bonanza of a harvest and a drop in demand has caused retail prices to fall to less than $3 a pound. The price paid to lobstermen has dropped to less than $2 a pound.

Some lobstermen here and in Massachusetts have gone on "strike" by refusing to haul their traps in hopes that prices will go up. To dramatize the situation, others have staged lobster giveaways and literally begged the public to treat themselves to lobster dinners.

"This is the buy of the decade," lobsterman Gregory Griffin said in Portland last week as lobstermen gave away 500 pounds of the crustaceans to day-care centers and organizations that feed senior citizens and the homeless. "We've got the price down below hamburg, and I think we're headed toward chicken wings."

Prices typically fluctuate wildly during the year. They usually are high in the winter, when the lobsters are difficult to catch, and low in the late summer, when they swarm near shore and are easy pickings.

But for the second August in a row, the "boat price" -- the amount paid to lobstermen -- has dropped to $1.75 a pound in Portland and $1.50 farther up the coast, or about $1 less than the going rate during most of the 1980s. Massachusetts fishermen have been getting about $2 a pound.

Costs for fuel, bait, maintenance and other needs have gone up in the past decade, but lobstermen are now receiving the lowest prices for their catch since 1981, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Many say they cannot make money at those prices.

"I can look at my bottom line and ask, 'Am I making it or not making it?' " said Ernie Burgess, a lobsterman on Chebeauge Island just outside Portland Harbor. "If I'm not making it, it's time to tie up."

While lobstermen are having a hard time, consumers are enjoying some of the lowest prices in years.

At fish markets, grocery stores and other retail outlets, prices are hovering between $2.79 and $2.99 per pound, roughly the same price at which supermarket deli counters sell bologna. Restaurants are offering twin-lobster dinners for less than $10, and some have triple-lobster feasts for less than $15.

"The prices on the retail level are terrific," said Alan Caron, a lobster consultant on the Portland waterfront. "You're just not going to see a lower price than this."

When prices bottomed out last summer, thousands of lobstermen along the entire Maine coast went on strike, tying up their boats and refusing to haul their traps until prices went up. They accused lobster dealers of driving prices down.

This season, things have been different, with only a couple of hundred lobstermen tying up their boats, those being on the islands of Casco Bay and on a lobster-rich peninsula 30 miles east of Portland. The majority instead are taking their case to the public, telling residents and tourists that now is the time to buy lobster.

Several factors have caused lobster prices to plummet the past two years.

The foremost one is simply that there is an oversupply of lobsters.

Last year, for instance, Maine's lobstermen caught 23.4 million pounds, the biggest catch in 29 years and the fourth-largest since records started being kept in 1885. While this summer's statistics aren't in yet, industry observers say the catch seems to be running ahead of last year.

Compounding the problem is that the catch is up not only in Maine -- where the majority of New England lobsters are caught -- but also in Massachusetts, Connecticut and other lobster-producing states.

At the same time, the number of buyers is down. With New England's economy as flat as it is, and each day's newspaper bringing fresh news of layoffs and bank problems, residents are tightening their belts. Indeed, lobster sales have always been considered something of an informal leading indicator among New Englanders seeking to predict the direction of the local economy (rising baked bean sales are also viewed as a sign of recession by some).

Tourist traffic is also down, particularly in coastal communities where residents of inland towns would flock for a week or weekend of swimming, sailing and a lobster and clam bake. And those who are visiting have become more tight-fisted with their dollars and less likely to spend their money on something like lobster with its high-priced image.

To top it off, late summer is the season when the ocean waters warm up and lobsters shed their hard shells to be replaced by soft ones. Because of the fragile nature of the soft shells, lobsters caught this time of year can't survive the air flights to markets in Europe, the Far East or even to American cities more than a couple of hours away.

"There are only so many the tourists are going to eat and only so many you can ship to Boston," said David Dow, director of the Lobster Institute, a cooperative promotional-educational organization of lobstermen and marketers at the University of Maine in Orono. "And the trip to Boston is iffy, because they're buried in lobster down there, and the trip down there is rough."

The short-term solution for the industry is to plead with the public, emphasize the good price and hope people buy lobsters.

The long-term solution is more complex and involves more than staging lobster giveaways.

"The sense seems to be that the lobster industry needs to go through some kind of change," said Caron. "We can't be tying up {the boats} every August. There's a more fundamental question that needs to be addressed here."

Caron said one step to ensure that prices don't plunge every summer is to control the lobster supply.

But that means limiting the number of lobster fishermen or the number of traps they can have, proposals that have never been accepted by lobstermen, who are independent by nature and ornery when confronted with government regulations.

The other solution is to develop new markets and new products.

Lobstermen, dealers, exporters and others in the industry in the past year have formed marketing groups to develop strategies on new ways to market the product. They look at the state's blueberry and potato industries, which have developed strong markets in recent years, and say they can do the same. Change is slow to come to the industry, but the lobstermen have realized that they can no longer just pull their traps from the water and be done with it. They are being forced to take on the roles of fishermen, marketers and distributors.

Will the classic Maine image of the yellow-slickered lobsterman lifting his pots from the frigid waters be seen only in postcards from now on? As the Lobster Institute's Dow said of industry changes, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."