Lobster boats in Portland Harbor.
No policymakers from Maine attended the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Foundation's first conference two years ago in Moncton. The meeting, which is now co-sponsored by the University of Maine's Lobster Institute, typically focuses on science. But this year, in a nod to the tumult that has shaken the industry, organizers asked top fisheries officials from Maine and The Maritimes to kick off the event.
Patrick Keliher explains why it was important for him to be here: "Whether it's in Maine or it's in the Maritimes, we're catching a lot of lobsters," he says - more than 250-million pounds, combined, between the U.S. and Canada in 2012 alone.
A year ago, boat prices - the price lobster harvesters are paid for their catch - in Maine plunged, when an early shed flooded the market with an oversupply of soft shell lobsters. Maritime processors rushed to ship in the low-priced, excess product, angering lobstermen along the Northumberland Strait, who were about to start their short season.
Tuesday, as Keliher and Canadian fisheries ministers kicked off the two-day conference in Moncton, the anger that drove last year's protests was still in the air.
"There's a lot of money in this industry and it's not coming back to the primary producer," says longtime lobstermen Charley McGeoghegan.
McGeoghegan is a member of the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, but he could just as easily be from Tenants Harbor, Sorrento or Jonesport. Over the last two weeks. McGeoghegan says he traveled up and down the coast of Maine and Nova Scotia, visiting with lobstermen and dealers.
"One lobster dealer that I was at in Nova Scotia had a brand new Bentley sports car parked outside. And beside that was a brand new 550 Mercedes. And beside that was a brand new Audi 8L," he says. "And each of them, the owners that came out, all had the company logo on their shirt, that got into them cars."
There's a ton of money in the industry, McGeoghegan noted, it's just in the hands of very few people. In his official remarks, Keliher said a more equitable distribution of the lobster fishery's bounty depends on Maine and Canadian efforts - and cooperation - in one key area.
"We will market Maine lobsters. Canada will market Canadian lobster, or a very specific Maritime province lobster," Keliher said. "But at the end of the day, we'll all be marketing lobster, trying to expand market share, and that's going to be an extremely important component."
It's a message the Canadians on the panel echoed. Ron McKinley is the fisheries minister in Prince Edward Island. He says he met with a Maine lawmaker this spring, right before the Legislature voted on a bill to overhaul the state's lobster marketing efforts.
"They had funds going through for promotion and that," Mckinley says. "And I said the more they promote, and the more lobsters you sell offshore - and I'm talking offshore to Asia, China and places - the more prices should reflect back here."
It's a message Maine lawmakers took to heart. The bill they passed, which the governor signed, did away with the state's Lobster Promotion Council, which had a budget of just $350.000. By contrast, the new Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative will see its budget increase by $2.25 million annually over the next three years.
The organization is still working in a strategic plan for where to focus the new marketing efforts.
Photo of lobster boats: File