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Global warming and other factors are causing an oversupply of lobsters in Maine.
Canada, which is the largest importer of Maine lobster meat, experienced an early season and its own glut of lobsters due to warming waters.
Maine lobstermen have seen an 80 percent increase in their own bounty over the past few years.
The result is that prices have dropped to about half since 2007, says eighth generation lobsterman Jason Joyce of Swan’s Island Maine.
This year, Maine state legislators passed a bill allowing the industry to tax itself so it can market its overabundance of lobster.
The industry has raised 2.5 million dollars.
“The money will be used to market the Maine lobster brand,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told Here & Now.
The industry will also brand new food products containing Maine lobster because “Lobster is becoming an ingredient,” McCarron said.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
If your local supermarket is selling lobster this summer, you may have noticed the incredibly cheap prices for what was once considered a real luxury item. That's because there is an oversupply of lobster in Maine's waters, a big one. This is the second year in a row that Maine lobstermen are dealing with a glut of supply and it has driven lobster prices to a 20-year low. Joining us to talk about this is Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. And we're also joined by Jason Joyce, an eighth generation lobstermen from Swan's Island, Maine. And, Jason, first, just to set the scene here, tell us what it is you do all day as a lobsterman.
JASON JOYCE: My day starts out, I go in and pick up bait, which is about four times the price than it was 10 years ago. Fuel cost is high. You go out. You get your lobsters. You land them. And we sell to a dealer here on Swan's Island at the fishermen's co-op. They sell to another dealer on the mainland who distributes to other dealers who end up selling it to restaurants. Or, this dealer that our island dealer deals with sells it directly - right now, they're selling mostly directly to processors.
HOBSON: So where's the squeeze coming from right now?
JOYCE: I mean, the economy isn't that great. Our marketing here hasn't been the greatest. There is a bill that passed to increase the marketing which is good. But there's a big glut of lobsters that the Canadians caught in the spring. They had strong landings. As lobsters are first landing in the first part of the - of our soft-shell season, the lobsters can't be shipped well because they're more fragile because their shells are thinner. And so you just can't go to those markets that you normally would, when you would airfreight or ship long distances.
HOBSON: And, Patrice McCarron, how do you see it? Where's the squeeze on the industry right now?
PATRICE MCCARRON: The lobster industry is very unique because the product that we land actually has to get through the market and through the supply chain alive. So where, you know, a typical product you might predictably manufacture something and have the customers lined up, we've been in a situation where we have literally been exponentially building the amount of product we're putting out there. And then on top of that, we have to keep it alive and get it to customers.
So between 2011 and 2012 alone, just here in Maine, we sold an additional 20 million pounds of lobsters. So when you're putting more supply out than you have customers for, you really have to pound the pavement, get people interested and excited in the product. The short-term consequence of that is that the price really does soften. But what we're hoping is that the customers that we've gained with these big, big landings that we've had are going to stick with us and we're going to see the price slowly strengthen over time and really put our guys in a better situation.
HOBSON: But you are in competition with the Canadians. They've got a lot more of these hard-shell lobsters that do better in colder waters and they like to say, have more meat in them, they've got harder shells, and so they ship a little bit better. What about that?
MCCARRON: Well, what Maine has going for us is we have the most delicious product to offer. We have a very tender, sweet, sweet meat that people really love, and I think if you ask most Americans what lobster they prefer, they would hop right up and say Maine lobster. The relationship that we've had with Canada has been both cooperative, but also competitive. So we mutually work to get the lobsters in the marketplace. If Canada is doing well, Maine is doing well and vice versa. But at the same time, we do compete with them for customers. So as we're both putting more lobsters into the supply chain, it does make things a little tight on both sides of the border.
HOBSON: We've seen that warmer waters are one of the things that is being looked at here as a cause of this. Can you talk about that? Is that your sense?
JOYCE: Yes. I mean that started with the glut of lobsters that started out I would say about two years ago. We could see a warming trend. The trend has been going back towards normal. The temperatures are still above normal. The effect of last year's temperatures on Canadian fisheries this year caused them to have a really strong spring landing, and then we come onto a decent amount of landings for our state, which that began a glut that we're dealing with now.
HOBSON: Now, one of the interesting things about the lobster industry is that the sweet spot for lobsters is right on the border between Maine and Canada, and the warmer the waters get, the further north the lobsters are going. And I see that they move something like 10 miles north every year. So isn't the future of lobstering, kind of, moving towards Canada based on the warmer waters?
MCCARRON: Well, I think that what we're actually seeing is that the lobsters haven't moved, but the abundance of lobster has increased. And each year, what you're seeing is that explosion in the lobster population on the bottom as a result of the conservation measures happens to be exploding in an eastern movement. So the western part of the state is still landing as many or more lobsters than they ever have. We're just seeing more product coming into the system from the eastern part of the state. So I think...
HOBSON: The eastern part being the part that's closer to Canada?
MCCARRON: Yeah. The down east part of the state as we call it here.
HOBSON: Jason, what about you? Are you concerned that that your lobsters are going to want to live in colder waters up north?
JOYCE: No. I mean that trend of the water temperatures being warmer peaked last year. I've been talking to the state scientists. The temperatures are starting to go back down. We had a cold spring, and that helped, and it was a cold winter. I feel it's more of a temporary thing as opposed to something - a trend that's going on for the next few years. I think there's a reset, kind of, going back to the way it used to be, and I don't know what will happen with the landings in regards to that. But we're hoping things get back to normal.
HOBSON: When I think of lobster, I think of a fancy meal, an expensive meal even, but I noticed that lobster is now so cheap that McDonald's in Canada is selling lobster rolls. Is that the future of the industry?
MCCARRON: Absolutely not.
MCCARRON: I think right now, given the record landings that we're having on both sides of the border, we're finding this product to be really an affordable luxury for people, but it is a luxury item. It's a real delicacy, and we will be working to really continue to move the product through that higher-end markets because our fishermen have worked hard to preserve and sustain the resource, and they need to be compensated properly for that.
HOBSON: What about you, Jason? What do you feel about that?
JOYCE: I think that live market needs to be expanded. As long as you have something that needs to be kept alive, it is a premium product, and there is a certain amount of luxury that comes with it that shows up on that - to the kitchen live. You know, I don't think it should be thrown into a breakfast cereal or anything like that. You know, we want to make sure that this is - it's a quality product. It's a luxury product. And we're hoping that the markets come around, and that the economy swings around, so that it's more viewed in that way.
HOBSON: I don't think we want it in a breakfast cereal.
JOYCE: Well, I don't know, they're sticking it in everything. They get in mac and cheese and all that, which is good. And it's, you know, expands the market to people that maybe wouldn't try it. But really, the best way to have it is, you know, the traditional way it's been cooked for years, so.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Patrice McCarron, you've got two and a half million dollars at your disposal to boost the marketing of this, what's your plan?
MCCARRON: The lobster industry itself went to the state legislature and recognized that we're just landing a lot more lobster than we did, and they've actually asked to have a tax imposed on themselves. So that two and a half million dollars is actually being raised from the fishermen, from the lobster buyers and the processors. And that money is going to be used to really set the brand for the Maine lobster, differentiate Maine lobster from Canadian lobster and other lobster species.
And probably the first job will be to really penetrate more of the U.S. market, About 70 percent of Canadian lobster comes into the U.S., so we'll probably get to work and regain a good portion of that back.
HOBSON: So I've got a slogan for you. I don't know if you want to use this. You can if you want. But I'll give it to you for free. The Maine course.
MCCARRON: We'll put that on the list...
MCCARRON: ...and let you know how it works out.
HOBSON: Jason, don't you think that will be a good idea?
JOYCE: Yeah, that's good.
HOBSON: There you go. So all right, you've got one person on my side. All right, Jason Joyce, eighth generation lobsterman from Swan's Island, Maine and Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. Thank you guys so much.
MCCARRON: Thanks, Jeremy.
HOBSON: What do you think, Robin, the Maine course?
YOUNG: Well, I think it's an excellent idea, and I think what we just heard from that Maine lobsterman was what they call in that area, enthusiasm.
YOUNG: Wild enthusiasm for your idea.
HOBSON: You know, I was very enthusiastic about the fact that over the weekend I had a lobster roll, and I think it was only 13 bucks.
YOUNG: Oh, I'm telling you...
HOBSON: It used to be more expensive than that.
YOUNG: That is your thing. Now is the time.
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.