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Lobster Fishermen Complain of Price Fixing
07/17/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The return, this summer, to a more normal season has not eased the frustration that peaked a year ago in lobstering communities, when the prices fishermen got for their catch reached all-time lows. This season, lobstermen are reporting a more modest harvest, as compared to last year's glut. But that's done little to improve boat prices. At a state forum in Ellsworth, angry lobstermen accused dealers of price fixing and demanded that the Maine Attorney General's office investigate.

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The lobstermen and women---captains and sternmen, young and old----take seats under the flourescent lights of the Ellsworth High School auditorium. A day that began before dawn in the waters off Stonington, Deer Isle, Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro is about to end with one more difficult discussion about an industry that's never been more robust but also never paid them less. Patrick Keliher, the state's marine resources commissioner, is holding these mid-summer listening sessions in towns up and dowm the coast.

What are you guys seeing? What are you seeing for boat price? What are you seeing for volume? What are you seein'?

It's almost a normal season compared two years ago, three years ago, compared to last year. Last year was just an abnormal weather pattern.

Robert Ray has fished off Stonington for twenty-five years. Between 2011 and 2012, Maine's lobster catch increased by twenty million pounds. Supply and demand, Ray tells Keliher, seem to be more in sync.

What's the excuse this year for me and my associate, fellow fishermen gettin' boat prices at $1.70?

Prices are falling by the day, other lobstermen told Keliher. One man sold lobster to a dealer for $2.40 a pound last weekend, only to return midweek and see a sign with a dollar sign and a question mark. The price just dropped fifteen cents in Frenchmen Bay, complained another man. Here's what might be happening, said Keliher.

Lobsters being bought on speculation because the volume's not there.

Which prompted this question from Michelle Plumber. She's a sternman out of Sullivan.

If there selling lobster on speculation, and we can't fill the orders, then why should it trickle back to us?

"Should we sell to someone else?" Plumber continued. "Should we go to other dealers who have a different market, who haven't sold on speculation?"

The larger dealers put a lot of pressure on the independents to keep the price low becuase they've already sold at that high price. So it's going to be a problem for them. So they put their thumb on the smaller guys and keep them down. So that they still get their catch at their low price. I mean, what can we do about that?

Keliher paused a moment, then answered Plumber carefully.

If that's happening, and I'm not saying it's not, I'm not saying it is.
Crowd: It is, it is.
They're saying it is. I'm not saying whether is is or not. In order for me or for the Attorney General's office to move forward with looking at price fixing, you need very specific information.

Things like phone records and other communication that could prove collusion between dealers. Lobstermen have made charges of price fixing for decades. In late 2009, after receiving a complaint letter from more than fifty lobstermen, the Maine Attorney General's office opened an investigation. That probe. Keliher reminded the lobsterment in Ellsworth,,,

Did not find any evidence of price fixing. It's very difficult, frankly.

A spokesperson for the Maine Import Export Lobster Dealers Association would not go on tape for this story to answer questions about allegations of price fixing. The Maine Attorney General's office did not return a call by airtime, asking whether the state has any plans to look into the charges again.



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