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Maine Lobstermen: Catch Falls, but Boat Prices Still Low
08/07/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

No one in the lobster world, at least so far, expects a repeat of last summer's crisis, when early molting in Maine flooded the market with an oversupply of soft-shell lobsters. The glut helped drive the boat prices paid to Maine and Canadian lobstermen to historic lows. This summer, the general consensus in the industry is that fishermen up and down the Maine coast are hauling in fewer lobsters overall. But that hasn't done much to improve prices. State and industry officials say this a natural byproduct of a rising supply of lobsters outpacing demand. But frustrated fishermen on both sides of border believe dealers are conspiring to fix prices. Jay Field reports.

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In the lobster business, there's one question that no one seems to be able to answer: How does a dealer decide what to pay for lobster coming off a boat on any given day? I put the question to one of the organizers of a joint Canada - U.S. industry conference in Moncton, New Brunswick.

"I don't think anyone really understands how the price of lobster is set," says Bob Bayer, who heads the University of Maine's Lobster Institute.

Maybe one of Maine's 14 lobster processors would have some idea. "You're asking the wrong guy. We're not close enough to that situation to know," says John Hathaway, who runs Shucks Maine Lobster.

Hathaway says he calls around, dealers tell him what the price is and he settles on a deal. "You hear all kinds of stories and rumors and everything else. It is fascinating to figure out, 'How does it start?' I don't know how it starts every day. And when you find out, tell me. I'd like to know."

For decades, the question - and the difficulty finding an answer to it - has frustrated the people that make the industry go, the lobstermen. But in the last few years, the long history of distrust between fishermen - and the dealers they sell to - has gotten worse in Maine and Canada, as the boat price of lobster has sunk lower and lower.

Last summer, lobstermen in Maine caught a record 126 million pounds. Fishermen up and down the coast complained of getting less than $2 a pound for their haul. The average last year - $2.69 per pound - was the lowest since 1994. This summer, while anecdotal evidence suggests the volume of the catch has eased off a bit, lobstermen say the price isn't any better.

"We pay our sternman 15 percent. We're paying four times what we paid for fuel when I started fishin'," said Thurman Radford, who's originally from West Virginia, and has been lobstering for 22 years. "And we're payin' 10 times what I paid for bait. And the price of lobsters is lower today than it's been in the history of the state of Maine."

Radford, and other lobstermen from Downeast, took part in a recent forum in Ellsworth with state fisheries managers. Kittridge Johnson, who's part of the Winter Harbor Lobster Coop, has been fishing, more or less continuously, since 1947.

"There's no reason, right now, for what we're getting for lobsters," he said. "Our coop, everybody in Frenchmen Bay, gets a phone call every morning. And the man just says, 'Today's Monday. They're going down 25 cents Wednesday.' How's he know that? Is he psychic?"

"Price fixing exists. Collusion exists. The State of Maine should investigate it," Thurman Radford said.

Lobstermen have complained of price fixing by dealers for decades. All they need to do, says Radford, is subpoena the phone records of dealers up and down the coast. The state, though, has already looked into the allegations once. In 2009, the Maine Attorney General's Office opened a probe, after receiving a complaint letter signed by more than 50 lobstermen.

"They did not find additional information that they needed to continue the investigation," says Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher. He says the frustration among lobstermen is understandable.

"They see phone calls being made on a daily basis. And they see speculation within buying. And they see their price going down," he says. "The short of it is, something concrete is needed, other than frustration. We take information. We look at it when it's brought forward. We haven't seen it to the level that would rise to actual collusion."

Keliher says he wouldn't hesitate to advise the Attorney General's Office to open a new probe if he saw evidence that did rise to such a level.

Which brings us back to the question we started with: How do dealers determine what price to pay for lobster? E-mails and calls to the leaders of the Maine Import Export Lobster Dealers Association seeking answer to this question were not returned by airtime.

Keliher and others in the industry say a big reason prices are low is that the Maine catch has increased so dramatically -from 70 million pounds in 2008 to 126 million last year. Demand, they say, simply hasn't kept pace with supply. There just aren't enough markets right now for all that additional lobster - and until there are, the price is likely to remain depressed.

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Maine and Canadian Lobster Industries Seek to Balance Competition and Cooperation
Maine's Surging Lobster Haul Shifts Focus to Processing
Maine and Canadian Lobstermen Plagued by Same Supply and Demand Issues

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