First published in Landings, October, 2015.
I often get asked how the lobster business is going. It’s certainly a question worth asking, since Maine’s coastal economy depends on the success of the lobster industry. In recent years the answer to that question has varied a lot.
It’s been a wild ride in the lobster industry since the financial crisis of 2008. Prior to 2008, lobster landings were slowly increasing but had only exceed the 70 million pound mark twice. Lobster prices had pushed up during that time, averaging more than $4.00 per pound in four separate years. Bait and fuel prices were on the increase, but seemed manageable because of the rising lobster prices.
In the seven years since 2008, we’ve seen landings shoot up from the 70 million pound mark; in three different years they’ve hovered around 125 million pounds. During this time, lobster prices dipped below $3.00 a pound in three of those years, and then rebounded last year to nearly $3.70 a pound. Meanwhile fuel prices peaked at almost $5.00 a gallon in 2008, dipped below $3.00 for a few years, and then steadily climbed near the $4.00 mark. And bait prices have crept up year after year.
Talk about a roller coaster ride! But the lobster industry responded as best it could to those hard times. Many lobstermen adapted by making their businesses as efficient as possible—burning less fuel, improving lobster holding capacity on deck and generally taking better care of their lobsters to maximize price. Lobster buyers and co-ops have improved dockside infrastructure by adding aeration and cooling systems and mechanizing the transport of lobsters from boat to truck. Other dealers have invested in new state-of-the-art land-based holding facilities, plus Maine’s lobster processing capacity has grown. Lobster dealers have successfully recruited a lot more customers both here in the U.S. and abroad. And the industry as a whole has collaborated to make a meaningful investment in marketing our product through the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
The collective efforts of the industry seem to be paying off. By most accounts, the 2015 season is shaping up to be a great one along the coast. Lobstermen report prices are up compared to last year, which was itself a solid year. Fuel prices are way down, hovering just above the $2.00 a gallon mark. Lobster landings remain strong and prospects for the future look good—lobstermen are seeing plenty of small lobsters in their traps, which bodes well for coming years.
For small business owners, 2015 is the kind of year you hope for, but rarely get. When it does happen, life is good and a whole lot less stressful. Still, how lobstermen respond as small business owners to the good times will make a big difference in how they will fare in years that are less successful.
Many lobstermen are taking advantage of these successful years by injecting lots of money into the coastal economy. Many beautiful and well-powered boats are being built and launched. Trap builders are backlogged for months with orders for brand new gangs of gear. And truck dealerships are happily moving truck after truck off their lots and into lobstermen’s driveways. Other lobstermen are becoming home owners for the first time.
But, at the risk of being the proverbial wet blanket, don’t let today’s strong landings and prices cause you to ignore some basic business realities. Keeping any small business profitable, whether it’s lobstering or the local coffee shop, requires planning and smart investment. It means thinking about the fiscal realities of the good years as well as those that may lie ahead during the leaner years. Investments are a necessary part of owning and running a business, as is saving money and paying down debt. Knowing what are the right things to do during the good times is critical to a lobsterman’s long-term success.
It’s not all about today. Several years ago, the MLA helped nearly 2,000 lobstermen obtain business training and develop a business plan through the TAA program. I hope that those lobstermen are putting that training to good use right now. And if you don’t have the business skills to manage your business, seek them out. Every lobsterman, no matter how small his or her boat or the number of traps they set, has a great deal of money invested in the business. Managing and planning for the future is essential to your success when things change – and they will.
It’s a great time to be a Maine lobsterman. Enjoy these times, but don’t forget to plan for your future.
As always, stay safe on the water.
MLA Directors Meeting Summary
The MLA Directors met on September 2 in Belfast. Chris White attended the meeting as a guest. He is working on a book about the New England lobster industry. He is attending meetings and events to observe and understand the different voices in the industry.
Kathy Mills from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) presented an overview of their lobster forecast model developed to predict the timing of the shed. The model was created in response to the ocean heatwave that occurred in 2012, which resulted in a very large and early shed. GMRI scientists wondered whether that ocean heatwave could have been predicted, which lead to development of the model. It is considered a work in progress; GMRI is seeking input from the lobster industry on its utility and how it may be improved.
The model uses water temperature data from several of the NERACOOS buoys along the Maine coast collected at 50 meters. Presently, the model’s is able to make more accurate predictions for an early season as opposed to a late season. It produces a probability that the start of the shed will happen early or late relative to a “normal season,” which is said to be July 3 to July 10.
MLA Directors offered feedback on the effort. The approach and predictions are too broad. Rather than using a statewide average for temperature and issuing a single prediction for the state, at least consider doing it regionally (i.e., southern, midcoast and downeast).
Comparing the start of the season to a “normal” shed is confusing. Many lobstermen don’t know what “normal” is; lobstermen who have fished for several decades consider a “normal” shed to be what was seen prior to ten years ago, similar to this year. The last ten years have been atypical and very unpredictable. In presenting the model’s prediction, there should be more emphasis on educating the industry on which factors are driving the prediction, rather than just giving a date. The model and its predictions should focus on when the shed will occur and the volume of the shed; it should not make any predictions about how this may impact the market or price. The MLA will distribute a survey to its members to solicit additional feedback on this project.
Patrice McCarron updated the Directors on several issues:
The Commissioner has held the first two outreach meetings on making changes to the lobster entry and licensing system. The key reforms under discussion include: 1) changing the currency of exit ratios to licenses for all zones, 2) extending the age for students to obtain a full commercial license from under 18 years of age to under 23 years of age; 3) create a lower cost limited lobster license with a lower trap limit. The MLA Board had a very mixed response and is very concerned about the zone councils losing authority. MLA will attend all of the meetings to continue to assess the issue and feedback from the industry.
ASMFC closed the herring fishery because the second trimester quota has been caught. The industry was caught off guard by this because, based on landings, scientists had predicted that the quota would last through September. However, a sudden spike in the weekly reporting resulted in the shutdown. The issue is complicated by the rolling spawning closures which occur from mid-August to mid-October off, from downeast Maine to Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The Conservation Law Foundation and several other environmental organizations are seeking to have Cashes Ledge and certain offshore submarine canyons designated as a National Monument. This can be done by presidential order with little to no public input. The fishing industry is outraged, given the time and resources invested in the recently completed New England Fisheries Management Council’s Omnibus Habitat Amendment. The MLA will join the state and other fishing groups in opposing this effort.
NMFS responded to MLA’s letter raising concerns about the federal observer program. The NMFS letter generally dismissed MLA’s concerns with the exception of the issue of poor lobster handling on deck.
NMFS released its proposed rule to ban the imports of seafood that do not meet U.S. bycatch standards under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The rules will not be implemented until at least the summer of 2016, and countries which are not in compliance have 5 years to receive a “comparability finding” or an acceptable plan before trade restrictions are imposed. This issue will continue to be monitored. Comments are due November 9.
Max Strahan is seeking signatures in Massachusetts to get a question on the November 2016 ballot to ban gillnet gear and other fishing gear capable of harming whales and turtles. This is not the first time he has tried this; he would need to get nearly 65,000 signatures for this to move forward.
Membership renewals are underway and going well; there’s been great feedback on the new hats. Those who join before September 15 will be entered into the raffle.
April Gilmore McNutt has resigned her position as Navigator with the MLA to have more time with her son Walter and her family. She will be missed!
The next MLA meetings will be October 7, November 10 and December 2. Note: the MLA will be attending the U.S.-Canada Lobster and the Changing Ecosystem conference from November 3 to 6 on Prince Edward Island.
The ASMFC Herring Section closed the Area 1A herring fishery, effective August 28, though herring vessels voluntarily stopped fishing on August 26. The ASMFC earlier had cited data that showed herring were being caught at a rate that would have allowed the fishery to continue through September. However the landings rate accelerated significantly in late August resulting in the shutdown. Since then, it has been reported that the landings were not monitored accurately due to a computer glitch. The Area 1A fishery will reopen on October 1, when all vessels are allowed access to the fishery.
The ASMFC implements rolling spawning closures in the herring fishery to provide adequate protection for spawning herring and prevent damage to herring egg beds. Since there were not sufficient samples to determine the spawning condition of the fish, the default spawning closures were implemented. Herring taken legally outside the Spawning Area Closures may be transported through the area only if all of its fishing gear has been stowed. Additional closures will be announced when ripe females are detected.
- Eastern Maine Spawning Area: August 15 through September 11, 2015
- Western Maine Spawning Area: September 1 through September 28, 2015.
- Western Maine and Mass/NH Spawning Area: September 21 through October 18, 2015.
Searsport Dredge Project on Hold
On September 8, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine DOT announced the withdrawal of the Water Quality Certification (WQC)/ Natural Resources Protection Act application for the Searsport Harbor maintenance and improvement project. The letter stated that the application may be resubmitted at a future. In a subsequent interview, Maine Port Authority Director John Henshaw commented that the application was withdrawn due to issues of timing, and that he expects the application to be refiled. The Army Corps project manager noted that Army Corps wanted more time to study the project, and that the application process was taking longer than expected.
MLA says NO to a National Monument in the Gulf of Maine
The MLA joined several other fishing industry groups (Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Lobstermen’s Union, Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association, Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, Gloucester Fisheries Commission and the American Bluefin Tuna Association) in signing a letter to PresidentObama strongly opposing the designation of Cashes Ledge and the offshore canyons as a National Monument. Such a designation could permanently ban fishing and other activities in the area and could be expanded at any time in the future. The letter notes that this potential designation would usurp the established habitat and fisheries management public process and could be economically catastrophic not only to the fishermen, but also to hundreds of small coastal communities in New England. MLA has also been in touch with state officials and Maine’s federal delegation on this issue.
GMRI Seeks Industry Feedback on Lobster Forecast Model
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) has developed a forecast for when the Maine lobster fishery will shift into its high-landings mode. Using a model that relates water temperatures at 50 meters measured at several of the NERACOOS coastal buoys to landings data, GMRI predicts the timing of when the fishery will “turn on” for the year. In 2015, the official prediction (issued April 15) was that there would be a 43% chance that the fishery will turn on one week late (July 7-17).
GMRI is seeking input from lobstermen and others in the industry to help evaluate and improve these forecasts. Through answers to the following questions, GMRI will assess lobstermen’s thoughts on this year’s forecast and identify options for how it might be improved. Any responses (full or partial) are appreciated; please e-mail responses to Kathy Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more about the modelling approach and the full series of forecasts for 2015 are available at www.gmri.org/lobster-forecast.
- Which lobster zone do you fish in?
- What is your home port?
- Where do you typically fish? (approximate lat/long or place name)
- When do you normally expect to start catching shedders?
- When did you start to pick up shedders this year?
- Did the shed come on quickly, or did they stream in?
- If you could have advanced warning of one aspect of the lobster fishery (for example, timing of the shed, volume of the catch, price, etc.), what would be most useful to you?
- Do you have other comments or feedback on the lobster forecast model?
Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative met in September in Rockland, Maine. Representatives from Weber Shandwick were in attendance to update the Board on implementation of the marketing plan to date. The strategy—to work with chefs to move new shell lobster into East Coast markets during peak supply and ramp up MLMC’s web and social media presence—has been extremely successful. Both chefs and consumers have been eager to learn about the taste and seasonality of Maine new shells.
Coast Guard Safety Stickers DUE Oct. 15
Lobstermen who fish outside the 3 nautical mile line must successfully complete a dockside safety exam and be issued a safety decal for your commercial fishing vessel no later than October 15, 2015. After that date, the exam must be completed at least every five years.
If your vessel was examined and safety decal issued after January 1, 2013, you are not required to have your vessel reexamined until five years from the date when the decal was issued. If you are boarded by the Coast Guard and found not in full compliance, you may be subject to enforcement action to include a civil penalty, termination of the vessel’s voyage, or other operational controls.
NOTE: Effective February 26, 2016, new safety regulations require that vessels fishing outside of 3 nautical miles must carry survival craft that ensures no part of an individual is immersed in water.
To schedule your exam, contact
Seabrook, NH to Waldoboro: Kevin Plowman, 207-780-3526, email@example.com
Waldoboro to Ellsworth: Brian Smith, 207-664-3931, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ellsworth to Eastport: Garry Moores, 207-838-4440, email@example.com
Double Gear Marking in Effect for Jeffreys Ledge and Jordan Basin
Effective September 1, 2015, two additional Gear Marking Areas go into effect, including a large area around Jeffreys Ledge and another near Jordan Basin as part of the federal whale rules. Gear fished in the Jeffreys Gear Marking Area must be marked with red and green; gear fished in the Jordan Basin Gear Marking Area must be marked with red and purple.
The rope must be marked at least three times (top, middle, bottom) and each mark must total 12-inch in length. If the mark consists of two colors then each color mark may be 6-inch for a total mark of 12-inches.
Trap Tags Can be Hog Ringed
The DMR is reminding lobstermen that you no longer need to contact your local Marine Patrol Officer to obtain replacement tags, unless you have a major loss. If you are shifting gear, you may cut your tag out of a trap and hog ring it into the bridge of the trap. Be sure that you do not cut any of the identifying information so it is clear to Marine Patrol that it is a legal 2015 trap tag.
Fall 2015 Inshore Trawl Survey aboard F/V Robert Michael
The fall groundfish trawl survey conducted by the Maine Dept. of Marine Resources is scheduled to begin September 28th in New Hampshire working east to Lubec. The weekly schedule breaks down as: Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, we will be working from New Hampshire to Cape Elizabeth; Oct. 5 through 9, we will be working from Portland to Muscongus Bay; Oct. 12 through 16, we will be working in Penobscot Bay area (Port Clyde to Isle au Haut); Oct. 19 through 23, we will be working from Isle au Haut to Schoodic Point (Mt. Desert Is. Area); and Oct. 26 through 30, we will be working from Schoodic to Lubec (eastern Maine). Schedules are subject to the weather conditions and can change at the last minute.
The data collected by the survey is used in the assessment of lobster stocks and many other species of fish and shellfish. The better information we have about ALL our fishery resources, the better we can defend our fisheries and livelihoods. In order to complete the required minimum number of tows for each of our 20 strata, we are asking for the cooperation of lobstermen in clearing proposed tow areas of gear. Mailings of proposed daily tow schedules with start and stop coordinates and area overviews to all lobster license holders have already started. Thank you for your cooperation.
Tow Schedule and Updates will be available via several methods:
For detailed charts, please call Sally Sherman 633-9503, Keri Stepanek 633-9530.
Web site: www.state.me.us/dmr/rm/trawl/trawl.htm.
Marine Patrol: Division I, Boothbay @ 633-9595 or Division II, Lamoine @ 667-3373.