Lobster landings in Maine and Canada going up, up, up

First published in Landings, March, 2013.

Everyone knows that there are a whole lot of lobsters crawling about in the Gulf of Maine and Canada. Maine lobstermen alone landed more than than 123 million pounds in 2012, an increase of approximately 18 million pounds from 2011, itself a record-breaking year for lobster landings. Canadian lobstermen brought in nearly 147 million pounds in 2011 and reports indicate that that figure may be up significantly for 2012.

Lobster landings in the United States and Canada have risen steadily during the past decade. Warmer Gulf of Maine water temperatures have also shifted the timing of peak landings. MLA chart.

Lobster landings in the United States and Canada have risen steadily during the past decade. Warmer Gulf of Maine water temperatures have also shifted the timing of peak landings. MLA chart.

The abundance of lobster in Canada and the United States has caused serious ripples within the industry. Expanding supply requires new markets to be developed, especially for a product that must travel through the supply chain alive. Additional challenges are posed when lobster landings spike during times when lobsters are typically in scarce supply. In June of 2012, Maine’s landings doubled what had been landed in previous years, leaving many dealers challenged to find markets in which to sell the product.

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s independent evaluation of the Maine lobster industry, completed in November, 2012, concluded that recent increases in landings have resulted in significant deflation in price, concluding “It is clear that demand is currently growing less than the supply.”

Canada manages its lobster fishery through 40 separate management areas, called Lobster Fishing Areas. Each LFA has its own management plan, trap limit and season. These LFA’s were designed, in part, to ensure a steady supply of lobsters to processors throughout the year. The US lobster fishery, managed through Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), is divided into seven management areas, each with its own management plan, but sharing core conservation measures. US lobster fishermen are not limited to seasons, though most lobstermen focus on the spring, summer and fall months.

U.S. and Canadian lobster landings, combined, totaled 273 million pounds in 2011. Canada is the larger harvester and is responsible for 54% of the annual lobster harvest; the US lands the remaining 46%. Maine’s portion of the total harvest accounts for 38% of the catch. Of the US lobster harvest, Maine lands about 83%, Massachusetts lands about 11%, and the other Atlantic coastal states land the remaining 6% according to National Marine Fisheries Service Annual Commercial Landing Statistics. According to NMFS, the US lobster resource contributed more than $423 million to American fishermen in 2011.

Furthermore, those combined landings have more than doubled in the past 25 years. Since 2007, US lobster landings have increased by 56% and Canadian landings have increased by 36%. The Lobster Settlement Index project, conducted in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island over the past 24 years, indicates that young-of-the-year settlement began to increase in 2009, hinting at continued robust landings in the future.

Finding good markets for all of these lobsters has become an issue of concern in the last few years. While the live market continues to offer the best price for lobster, it is limited by the challenges of getting the lobster to the customer alive. As landings have increased, the processing sector has evolved as ready and able to purchase a large volume of product for sale to customers. Canada has a leg up in terms of lobster processing capacity. Beginning in the late 1980s, the Canadian government, in particular the province of New Brunswick, began to invest in lobster processing infrastructure. As a result, Canada currently has 90% of the world’s lobster processing capacity. However, the processing sector in Maine is on the increase. As a result of the Mosley Group Report, completed in 2009, Maine amended its laws concerning lobster processing in the state. Maine now authorizes production of shell-on lobster parts (i.e., tails, legs, claws and carapace) and sale of these products, a move, in addition to other factors, that has spurred additional processing activity in the state. Maine DMR reports issuing 16 lobster processing licenses in 2011.

As the waters of the Northwest Atlantic continue to warm, many factors will affect the dynamics of the lobster industry. It is anticipated that lobster landings will continue to be strong, and the timing of those landings shifting to earlier months. Mother Nature is providing U.S. and Canadian lobstermen with a lot more lobster, and at different times than in the past. Both lobstermen and the markets will need to adjust.