SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 25, 2012

Sweet price for consumers, hard time for local lobstermen

By Ethan Forman, Staff Writer
The Salem News

---- — MARBLEHEAD — When he is not surveying boats for sale, Capt. Jay Michaud considers the cockpit of his 42-foot lobster boat, named International Harvester, his office. He has been fishing lobsters for 40 years. This year, Michaud and other lobstermen have seen the price for lobsters plunge.

According to Bill Adler, the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association’s executive director, the “boat price” lobstermen are fetching is $2.75 a pound, when it should be $4 a pound to break even on the cost of bait, fuel, labor and traps.

Michaud, who said he needs to catch at least 100 pounds of lobster to break even, spoke about the factors that are driving the price this season.

Is the problem an oversupply — that the warm weather brought the lobsters out early?

Purely a temporary situation. These things happen. It’s an adjustment. It would probably never have gone as low as it has gone if it weren’t for the fact that the nation happens to be in a recession still.

Do you think it’s a perception that people think lobster is a pricey meal, but they may not realize prices are reasonable?

Lobsters are a celebration meal. When you ask someone to marry you, you buy her a lobster dinner. When you have a birthday, you celebrate with a clambake. ... You can live on hamburg, but you celebrate on lobster.

Is there an unusual circumstance this year?

What happened was ... we had a rather mild winter, the water temperatures did not go down as low as they normally do, and the temperature recovery was a lot quicker than it normally is in a regular year. Lobsters’ movements are regulated by temperature. When we had the warmer waters, nature told the lobsters that: “Hey, it’s time to shed.” ... The lobsters in Maine and here in Massachusetts, they shed about six weeks early, and there was just a mass of them that came out at the same time, and they were all paper-thin lobsters, which can’t be shipped. They are a much sweeter lobster ... but they don’t ship well, and they don’t hold in the lobster holding systems very well because they are very fragile.

Do you throw them back?

Well, some people do. The problem we have is when you throw them back, the chance of them making it to the bottom from the surface is quite remote.

So when you catch those soft-shell lobsters, it’s like a Catch-22: You can’t throw them back because they get eaten by predators, and they don’t keep in the lobster hold systems, so you are catching too many of the wrong type.

It is the wrong type, and the market was not ready for them. Usually ... a softer lobster will end up being processed. ... One of the problems that we have with lobstering, with lobsters, is that the distribution system is archaic. ... We are trying to sell a live animal that doesn’t keep well. The processors have come along — it’s relatively new, within the last 20 years — what they are doing is they process the lobster and they freeze them cryogenically.

The Canadian lobster processors didn’t come down to the area?

They already had a great deal of inventory, from what I understand, and they simply didn’t have the cash to be able to buy the lobsters they needed to get rid of inventory.

So where does it leave you?

As the harvester, we are now looking to catch a lot of product just to cover expenses, and there is very little left over.

Is now the time to buy lobster?

It would make me happy. It’s a great time to buy lobster.

Do lobstermen sell direct to the public?

There are a couple of them that do. One fellow that we have in town sells at the farmers market here in Marblehead. ... There is another one at the Salem Farmers’ Market. ... Those are lobsters that are right off the boat.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.