Guest Column: Forecasting lobster sheds

First published in Landings, February 2015.

David Cousens is a South Thomaston lobsterman and president of the MLA.  MLA photo.
David Cousens is a South Thomaston lobsterman and president of the MLA. MLA photo.

Maine’s lobster fishing season has long been determined by when the shed happens. Most set traps out in the spring to hold bottom, but fishing officially starts when the first strong run of shedders hits.

As we have all known for years, the shed coincides with warm water temperature. 2012 had the warmest water temperature we’ve ever experienced in the Gulf of Maine and the shed was four to six weeks early. This turned out to be an economic disaster for the lobster industry. In 2014 the water temperature was more normal and the shed happened in the same time frame as it used to be. Already in 2015 scientists have stated that the Gulf of Maine is warmer than usual for this time of year and it could mean warmers waters and an early shed.

The temperature in the Gulf of Maine has been rising faster than in other places in the world because of the hydrology and geography of the Gulf of Maine. This is something we need to think about as we try to manage the lobster fishery. You may ask, “Why do we care?” and my response is that if you understand why 2012 was such a disaster, you can try to avoid that happening again.

We can’t change the water temperature, so do we simply prepare ourselves for low prices if there is an early shed? Maybe not. We can learn from past experience and talk about adapting our fishing to alleviate what caused the problems. First, we need to look at what caused the economic problem of 2012. We hauled 5 million more pounds in June than we normally do because of the early shed. This was the crux of the problem because we had no place to go with the lobster and they were too soft to hold. Canada was still processing their own lobster and was having big catches. They stop fishing at the end of June.

Traditionally, the processors take two weeks to clean the processing plants and get ready for our soft shell lobster, which usually arrives about the middle of July. Because we had 5 million more pounds of lobster than we usually have, the dealers had no place to go with them. The lobsters were not keeping well because the water was so warm. In response, the price dropped so low that essentially lobstermen couldn’t afford to fish. From there, the price just never recovered to where it should have been.

Monitoring water temperatures to forecast the timing of the shed may well give us a warning if an early shed is going to happen again. We need to be aware of the science, and as harvesters, willing to consider what it could mean for the fishing season.

Last year showed us what we should try to emulate. No real volume of soft shells were landed until the third week of July. By the time we started landing them, everyone needed lobster. And price remained stable, without the big drop we’ve suffered from in recent years. The shell on the lobster was really good by the middle of August and the live markets were strong. The good shell meant that they could be shipped. This created competition between the processors and the live market, thus the price went up in August and September and October. The end result was that harvesters got paid 75-90 cents more a pound for the soft shell product than in previous years. Since we likely landed more than 100 million pounds, this was huge for the economy of Maine.

So, 2012 taught us how to lose money and 2014 how to make money. Moving forward, how should we deal with an early shed? That is a question that needs to be answered. And I really think we all need to wrap our heads around how we could deal with that problem as it probably is going to happen again in our future.
I believe whatever we do would have to be state-wide. The two goals would be: 1) not to put many soft shells in the marketplace till the third week of July, and 2) slow the catch until the shell on most of the lobsters is of shippable quality. This would ensure a supply of quality shippable lobsters to be able to fill the demand domestically and abroad, thus taking advantage of the live market which is more valuable to the harvester.

In closing, the economics of these two scenarios should be enough to convince people this is the right thing to do. This last year the lobster industry put about 100 million dollars more into the state economy with fewer lobsters than in the past two years, just because of the increased value of the product. I know as a harvester the 80 cents a pound more last year sure made the end of the year look better financially. I for one would like to see this trend continue.

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