Steaming Ahead: September 2012

First published in the MLA Newsletter, September, 2012.

2012 will go down in history as a lobster season bursting with challenges that elude simple answers. Profits are way down this year for all lobstermen and there is grave concern over how many businesses will be above water when the year ends. Unfortunately, our younger fishermen – the future of our industry – are the most vulnerable.

Discussions within the industry have been heated, and there is a strong sense that something is broken. It seems unthinkable that so many lobstermen are struggling to make ends meet during a period of record high landings. At least we can be thankful that the lobster resource is in such great shape.

Generations before us had the vision to put an aggressive conservation program in place, at great personal sacrifice to their profits. I can’t imagine where we would be today if we hadn’t been throwing back eggers, shorts and oversized lobsters, v-notching females or if we had allowed lobsters to be caught in trawl gear. We should think about the sacrifices previous lobstermen made in order for us to inherit such a robust fishery. It is now time for us to consider what sacrifices we need to make in order to hand an economically viable fishery on to our children and grandchildren.

Many people are justifiably confused about how we slid into the depths of this crisis. Newspapers have put forth various theories, including above-average landings in Canada, an early shed combined with strong landings in Maine, a weak national economy, the shipability of Maine lobsters and bad blood with our Canadian counterparts. The reality probably lies in a combination of all these factors. Some feel that this year is an anomaly; others think we’ll be in this same situation in future years. Even if next year returns to “normal” – though I no longer know what that is – 2012 has showed us that we are vulnerable.

Mixed in among all the confusion about the reasons for this historically low boat price has been a lot of blame: it’s the dealers, it’s the processors, it’s that lobsterman in my harbor who will fish no matter what the price! Blaming others is not going to solve anything. The harvester community needs to take responsibility for Maine’s lobster fishery. Regardless of whether you think the dealers and processors are trying to screw you over, they aren’t going anywhere. We need them to get our lobsters to market.

In fact, we owe them a big thank you for how well they responded in August when Canadian lobstermen blocked shipments of Maine lobster destined for processing plants. Maine lobstermen were able to keep fishing and, despite the temporary loss of a significant market, the price remained relatively stable. If we did not have such an effective dealer network in place, that crisis would have been much worse.

We’ve been aware for some time of the tight resource and business connection between the Maine and Canadian lobster industries. Yet I don’t think we really started to understand the ramifications of this connection until this summer. It’s become painfully clear that the Maine lobster industry has failed to adequately invest in building consumer demand for Maine lobster. We have failed to consider how to match our business and harvesting strategies with the realities of 21st century markets and a more-than-100 million pound fishery. We have failed to recognize the opportunities and limitations of the soft-shell lobsters that we land and we have failed to invest in creating new products from those lobsters. Most importantly, we have failed to take responsibility for any of this.

I have always been a “glass is half full” person, so I firmly believe that adversity brings new possibilities. The Maine lobster industry has tremendous opportunities to turn things around despite the fact that margins will continue to be squeezed as expenses rise.

We must think about how and when we fish and the quality of the product we land. If you land a lobster than cannot hold a band or is too weak to put up a fight, what do you really think it is worth? This is not a problem for the dealers to solve. This is our problem, the problem of ensuring a quality product. If we want to see profitability return to our industry, we must take on this responsibility ourselves. The changes in lobstering practices that must take place will be significant and will be felt by every harvester. But look at it this way: if you don’t feel the effects of the change, it’s probably not worth doing.

At a bare minimum, this industry must embrace establishing a new marketing entity. The Lobster Advisory Council is proposing a new council with a $3 million budget to be phased in over three years. That $3 million is a mere 1% of the annual value of our catch. We have to have money to get out there and build demand for Maine lobster. If we don’t, the Canadians will. Maine will be left behind.

We must also consider some structural changes to how we lobster. Today most lobstermen are not profitable with a boat price of less than $3.00 per pound; it just costs too much to operate a boat and fish a large gang of traps. Lobstermen must be open to talking about trap limits, seasons, changes in the gauge, days out of the fishery –mechanisms that could provide Maine lobstermen the flexibility to work, pay the bills, and harvest a quality product for a premium price.

Implementing changes in our fishery through investing in marketing and rethinking our business and harvesting strategies will not prevent a future crisis from happening. But by making these changes, by building demand for Maine lobster and developing efficient harvesting and business plans, those inevitable challenges will be much more manageable. It certainly will provide us with the peace of mind to know that we, like the generations before us, took action to ensure a viable fishery for our sons and daughters.

As always, stay safe on the water.

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