Four Ways to Improve Lobster Quality and Price

by Sandra Dinsmore

Low boat prices and rising operating costs have forced discussions on possible solutions. Marketing innovations promise greater demands, but some question whether this will raise boat prices. Lowering the cost of fishing and raising the quality of the product have also been getting the attention of lobstermen. ©Photo by Sam Murfitt

Four people involved in the lobster industry have ideas about improving Maine’s lobster quality and price: a biologist, two lobster dealers, and a fisherman. Each sees the industry from a different perspective; each has been involved in the industry for over 25 years.

Robert Bayer, Director of the Lobster Institute, located at the University of Maine, thinks US fishermen could improve shell quality and meat yield by closing each zone for two weeks, zone by zone. “Although not ideal,” Bayer said, “having those two extra weeks to fill out and harden might enhance product value.”

A lobster dealer who asked not to be identified suggests the coast be divided into three Lobster Fishing Areas (LFAs): not by dividing the harvesting areas in thirds, but dividing the historical lobster catch volume by thirds. “That would put Knox County in the Central LFA,” he said. “In other words, the average volume of each new LFA would be one-third of total production. This way the West LFA would have a larger shoreline than the Central LFA, which is more productive per mile of shoreline.”

Each LFA would close for six weeks. West LFA would stop fishing June 15 for six weeks. Central LFA would stop August 1, and Down East LFA would stop Sept. 15. All LFAs would fish Nov. 1, which is still 3 to 4 weeks before Nova Scotia’s LFAs 33 and 34 open, but is closer to the New Brunswick opening of the second Wednesday in November.

“This will reduce the volume of unshippable lobster from Maine and its high mortality, which gives Maine a rear seat in quality for the live trade and profit margins for all,” the industry person said. “Fishermen will receive a higher price for this better product and haul fewer traps for the same amount of income. It will also reduce bait consumption along the coast.”

Lobster fisherman Leroy Bridges, of Sunshine Island, off Deer Isle, suggests lobster fishermen fish four days a week and take Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays off. “This gives an entire cycle of a weekend to clear the market,” he said. “For fishermen, it also gives them two days of no expenses.”

The only problem Bridges finds with Bayer’s suggestion is that he needs to come up with a way for fishermen to get paid for those two weeks his or her zone is closed.

Another veteran dealer thinks fishermen should not fish on Mondays, which he considers the biggest fishing day. “Monday,” he stated, “there is absolutely no market.” He explained that Monday is the day that buyers make decisions about prices. He said dealers don’t buy on Mondays because they don’t want to get caught paying too much or too little. Therefore, he said, “All these lobsters land on the dock, and they’re shedders.” He said these shedders go out to the highest bidder because sellers have no choice. They can’t keep them. Their shells are too soft. They won’t travel. They won’t keep unless they’re either popped into a refrigerated holding system, cooked and eaten, or processed immediately.

Because every fisherman is on a schedule, weather permitting, of fishing Mondays and Tuesdays, those are the biggest lobster catching days of the week. Thousands of lobsters arelanded on docks those two days. Production is lower on Wednesdays and Thursdays be- cause there’s not the effort. He suggested making production on Wednesdays and Thursdays as big as it is on Mondays and Tuesdays. He explained, “All the lobster coming in on the same days is what is hurting the industry.” He suggested that if 50 percent of fishermen were to fish Mondays and Tuesdays and the other 50 percent go Wednesdays and Thursdays, the lobsters wouldn't all be landed at once.

“When the market starts rolling, and dealers have orders for Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday,” the dealer said, “go fishing Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Stay home on Friday,” he advised, “because there are not many deliveries for Saturday and Sunday.”
He brought up the problem of too-soft lobster, saying, “What better way to conserve than to not bring in any lobster that can’t be properly banded? Do you realize how much you could conserve? And [the lobster] will be there two weeks later for you to catch.” He mentioned the DMR talking about conserving lobster stock by cutting down on the number of traps fished and said, “You don’t need to lose any pots. That’s not conserving.

“By the time you get this [system] rolling and you're fishing just the three to four days a week, depending on the market,” he said, “you’re bringing in a product that can be legitimately banded.” According to this dealer, by the time fishermen go out to haul the following Tuesday, people will be lined up wanting the product versus the way it’s being done now, he said, explaining, “You can’t take Monday’s product, cull it properly, and keep it till Wednesday or Thursday. Not a shedder.

“You’ve got to make the market want the lobsters,” he said. “If fishermen are aware that product is flooding the market, they should stay home to keep prices up rather than bringing prices down by catching and putting even more product on the market.”

As for selling lobster in your truck, he said, “All you’re doing by going to the side of the road and peddling the lobster is getting the supermarkets, who can use a ton of it, pissed off because you’re selling it for less than they are.” He also reminded fishermen that it takes about a dollar for a lobster to go through the lobster industry chain or pipeline to get to that grocery store or supermarket. “It’s got to go through the proper chain,” he said, “or the grocery store won’t take it. They won’t take just the ocean run because they do not want culls, deads, or weaks (lobster too soft or weak to hold up its claws).” He said the lobster brought in the week of the heat wave probably never should have been landed. Too many died.

The fishermen of some communities and co-ops take pride in the quality of the lobster they catch. They handle it gently, or as Bayer once suggested, as if they were holding a five-dollar bottle of wine. Buyers line up to buy lobster that's well handled and in good condition. With the Canadian lobster fishing seasons about to open and Canadian hard shell product about to take precedence on the market, Maine fishermen might want to consider how best to fish their lobster.


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