Guest Column: This Season, communication and cooperation are key

Patrick Keliher is the Commissioner of the Department of Marine resources. DMR photo.

Never has the lobster industry been so tested — whale regulations and lawsuits, a petition to close large areas of the Gulf of Maine, bait supply, and COVID-19. To make matters worse, lobster markets in the U.S. and around the world are extremely limited due to restrictions related to the global pandemic. Restaurants, cruise lines, casinos, and hotels are closed or severely limited in their ability to serve customers. It is uncertain how long this will last, but it’s clear that it will continue at some level through the summer.
I have spent hours working the phones, holding meetings and discussing with industry members possible solutions to what could very well be an oversupply problem as the fishery ramps up this summer. My position about government intervention has not changed – I don’t think that government should wade in to try to influence market conditions. It would be a terrible precedent to set. That doesn’t mean we might not want to temporarily slow or stop the fishery if we reach a state of emergency, but that should be the last option.

As many of you remember, we had a similar situation in 2012 when an early shed in Maine waters led to an increased supply of lobsters in a very short amount of time which U.S. and Canadian processors weren’t prepared to handle. I was asked then to intervene, and I said no. My feeling then, as it is today, is that the government should not use its authority to impact markets.
The dozens of conversations I’ve had with harvesters, dealers and processors this spring have made it clear that the vast majority also do not want the state to intervene at this point, but rather to let the industry resolve the situation.
But, we are in unprecedented times. So while I am reluctant to make use of government authority, I will remain in close contact with industry and will consider taking action as a last resort to avoid loss or waste of product and to help ensure that all Maine lobster brought to shore can find a home.

Some of the measures that the industry has asked me to consider include changing the gauge size, reducing the maximum number of traps, prohibiting fishing on certain days of the week, and prohibiting landing culls. Every one of these has challenges with implementation and enforcement, and potential unintended consequences that could undermine this industry.
So, in the short-term, I continue to strongly encourage the industry to address this issue through communications and cooperation.
As I have said earlier, harvesters should refrain from landing product if there is no market for it. Likewise, dealers should communicate to harvesters when they don’t have sufficient markets.

I recognize that using this type of restraint is asking for a sacrifice. But we all know that lobsters landed by harvesters and purchased by dealers when there are no markets will result in a value decline that will be felt by everyone in the industry, potentially for several seasons to come. A short-term sacrifice may help us achieve a longer-term gain.
This emphasis on communications and cooperation should be matched with a commitment throughout the industry to quality. That should involve a shared commitment with dealers incentivizing only the highest- quality product and harvesters sacrificing volume for quality.
A commitment to quality throughout the supply chain will support the brand reputation of Maine lobster which you have all worked so hard to build.

I can’t imagine what the uncertainty of this coming season is doing to you and your family. But I do have confidence that working together is the best path forward. This is an unprecedented time, but I believe this industry will, as it always has, rise to the occasion and weather this storm.

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