Maine lobster fishery hits record value, but faces challenges in 2022

A tank full of live lobsters at a Maine market.

The lobster fishery in the U.S. state of Maine has its most-valuable year in history in 2021, pulling in a record-shattering USD 724.9 million (EUR 638.1 million) in the year – an increase in value of USD 312.4 million (EUR 275 million) over the previous year – according to data released by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The previous value record for the fishery was set in 2016, when the Maine lobster fishery earned roughly USD 541 million (EUR 476 million) in value, USD 184 million (EUR 161 million) less than it earned in 2021.

That higher earnings came thanks to an average price per pound of USD 6.71 (EUR 5.90), almost USD 2.00 (EUR 1.76) more than the previous high mark. According to preliminary month-by-month data, 2021 represents the first year that the fishery earned more than USD 100 million (EUR 88 million) in a month for more than one month – and it did it for four straight months from July through October.

"The extraordinary value earned last year by Maine lobster harvesters is a clear reflection of strong consumer confidence in the Maine lobster brand and the products and people it represents," Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a press release.

The fishery landed 108,048,704 pounds of lobster, marking a 12-year run of close to or more than 100 million pounds caught in a year. That total is also 10 percent higher than the catch in 2020, according to the Maine DMR.

The record-breaking value is due to unprecedented demand for the product, Maine Lobster Dealers' Association Executive Director Annie Tselikis told SeafoodSource.

“The incredible value that we experienced off of our 2021 landings is directly due to the insatiable demand in the marketplace for seafood coming out of the pandemic,” she said. “We knew early on in 2021 that the demand for lobster was going to be high all year.”

Lobster prices garnered national attention in 2021, including an article in The New York Times focused on the cost of lobster rolls.

Tselikis said the industry knew prices would be high when the Canadian lobster season didn’t do anything to dent demand.

“When you think about the seasons around Prince Edward Island, that typically generates about 100 million pounds of product every year that enters the system,” Tselikis said. “With that 100 million pounds that came ashore in May of 2021, the demand was still off the charts, and the price was still high. It showed us we were in for a very interesting season in terms of demand.”

Demand remained strong, and according to Tselikis competition for product increased, which is what drove up prices paid to fishermen.

“The competition at the shore was very high in 2021. If you don’t have lobster, you’re not in the game,” Tselikis said. “For shore buyers, the people buying from wharfs directly form fishermen, they were competing for product.”

Keliher said the record value was “one for the books” and should be celebrated, but also expressed concern regarding the potentially tumultuous future facing the state’s lobster fishery. A new set of regulations issued by NOAA, including more stringent gear requirements and the closure of a 967-square-mile area to fishing, are intended to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

"There are many challenges ahead, and it’s important that fishermen remain engaged in management discussions that will strive to make this stock resilient for future generations,” Keliher said.

The new gear requirements have been fiercely opposed by Maine's lobster fishermen and Maine’s entire congressional delegation. U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, as well as Maine Governor Janet Mills, sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on 7 February to request a delay in new gear requirements, which go into effect 1 May.

The new guidelines require ropes with “weak links” that would allowright whales that become entangled to escape. However, there's a severe shortage of the required equipment available in the marketplace, according to the letter.

“They [lobstermen] are encountering ... a scarcity of the very materials they need to comply, including manufactured weak links and special weak rope,” the letter said. “The installation of manufactured weak links into end-lines is an option that many boats are planning to utilize, but with a current production rate of only 3,000 links per week by the sole NMFS-approved manufacturer (Seaside Rope), there is a significant shortfall in supply.”

During the peak of the fishing season, roughly 800,000 vertical lines will be in the water that require a weak point – far more than can be updated by May, according to the letter.

Fishermen who want to use a weak rope instead of a weak link are also facing supply shortages. Only one company is currently producing rope that is likely to be used by the Maine fishery, and only one supplier carries it, according to the letter.

“NMFS approved very recently a Maine-specific rope with a purple tracer made by Rocky Mount, but it is highly unlikely that its production will meet demand by this spring,” the letter states.

As state officials attempt to delay the implementation of the new federal regulations, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is suing the federal government to stop the 10-year whale plan that it says will “decimate Maine’s lobster industry.” The MLA has begun a USD 10 million (EUR 8.8 million) fundraising drive to pay for its legal fees and fund more research on how best to protect right whales.

MLA Director of Advancement Kevin Kelley told SeafoodSource but the state’s economy as a whole is at risk from the new regulations. The recent fishery's record-breaking haul in 2021 shows how much of an economic engine the fishery is – even without taking into account the wider impacts the fishery has on other industries, Kelley said.

“Our goal with our fundraising campaign is to demonstrate the importance of the industry to the entire state’s economy,” Kelley said. “If Maine’s lobster fishery were to be eliminated, as it could be under this 10-year plan, the ripple effect would go far away from the coast.”

Research by the Bigelow Laboratory shows North Atlantic right whales are moving away from Maine's lobster-fishing grounds, according to the MLA. Plus, the MLA said, “there has not been a single known right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear in almost 20 years, and Maine lobster gear has never been linked to a right whale death.”

The MLA campaign aims to reduce the negative impacts on Maine's lobster sector as welll as to the right whales, as better research will help to pinpoint what is actually endangering them, Tselikis said.

“It is one of one of the most-important things the industry can support right now," she said.

Photo courtesy of mark stephens photography/Shutterstock


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