At the end of the fifth annual Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen’s Town Meeting, harvesters from both countries took an unprecedented step, voting to try a combined promotional effort for lobster.
Generic promotion of lobster is a distinct departure from the trend to “brand” products from a specific place such as Maine or Alaska to cash in on the mystique of the place. But lobstermen are desperate to increase revenue to insure their survival as fuel and bait costs soar and the price to the boat stagnates.
“We are going to ask the Lobster Institute’s board to organize a study on the feasibility of the lobster industry putting together a unified organization or effort to promote lobster and the lobster fishery,” read a statement prepared at the town meeting’s end by an executive committee of the Institute’s board of advisers.
Committee members said they had spoken with colleagues from the Lobster Science Centre at the University of Prince Edward Island who expressed a desire to have a role in the study, as will the steering committee of a Lobster Summit Group that met in Canada last year to discuss similar issues.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said William Adler, chairman of the advisory board of the Lobster Institute, Orono, host of the annual town meeting.
“Rather than pitting different entities — states or countries — against each other when they have the same product, we should consider the strategic abundance of lobster. At certain times of the year, you can’t get a lobster from Maine or Massachusetts, and the lobster that serves the world at that time is Canadian — Canadian stuff is available until August, after that U.S.-caught lobster supplies the market. “We’ve seen tagged lobster show up in Massachusetts and Maine waters. It’s all the same. We should try to promote ‘North American lobster,’ “ Adler said.
“The Lobster Institute is unique because it’s the only advocacy group that represents the lobster world and doesn’t advocate for any one group or political point of view,” said Dana Rice of D.B. Rice Fisheries in Birch Point, an Institute board member. “It’s one of the best-kept secrets.”
Laurence Cook is chair of the lobster sector of the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association in New Brunswick and one of seven panelists. At the start of the first day’s session, Cook recounted that in 1991 he needed to land 160,000 lobsters to bring home $70,000. Now to earn the same money, he must land 400,000 lobsters.
“When I started, fuel was 22 cents a liter and lobster was $5-plus a pound. Now fuel is 99.4 cents a liter or $4.50 a gallon, bait is $500 a hogshead and I’m getting $4.50 for lobster,” said Cook.
“I have three kids and a mortgage. If I have to go further and work harder, I will, but remember — price impacts conservation,” Cook said. “Can we keep taking more out of the ocean? We call lobster a luxury item, but we sell it out of the boat as junk, because that’s how we’re paid.”
“We need a joint effort between Canadian and U.S. buyers, processors and fishermen to market lobster,” Cook said early on the first day, “Wherever it is caught it’s one of the best products in the world.”
Seventy percent of Canadian lobster is sold into the U.S., and a substantial amount of U.S. lobster goes to Canada as well. Canada operates on closed seasons, so product moves back and forth depending on supply and demand. All East Coast lobster is the same species, Homarus americanus.
The more than six dozen participants recounted similar problems — the skyrocketing cost of fuel, lower catches and prices to the boat that don’t rise correspondingly, if at all. They also cited two new issues — the recent doubling of salt prices and a lower quota for herring, both of which they predict will drive high bait prices much higher.
Elliott Thomas, a Yarmouth, Maine, lobsterman, said from 2001 to 2007, fuel increased 116 percent, 17 percent in the past year and still rising; bait increased 67 percent, mostly in the past two years.
“I need $5.25 a pound ex-vessel price before I break even,” said panelist Bernie Feeney, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “When the expense line meets the price line, there is no bottom line.”
A representative of the Outback chain said casual dining restaurants wouldn’t sell many lobsters if the price went up too much and that fluctuating prices made it difficult for printing menus. Many casual dining chains are suffering severe losses in the current economy.
“The minute we put ‘market price’ on the menu, sales go way down,” he said. Thirty-five percent of Maine’s lobster catch is now sold to Outback.
Lobsterman Jon Carter from Bar Harbor pointed out that unlike other segments involved in the industry, such as truckers or restaurants, “We have no say in our margins. We’re not crying ‘more money’ to increase our profits, just to survive.”
Cook said if he could get $500,000 for a lobster, he would promise to catch only one. Another harvester said if prices went too high, there would soon be more boats in the water to fish for lobster.
Participants did not come armed merely with a litany of complaints, they brought many considered suggestions for solutions as well. Klaus Sonnenberg of Grand Manan suggested to avoid the cost of increasingly expensive air freight, dealers take advantage of new shipping crates that sprinkle live lobsters en route so they could be shipped across the ocean.
“The Euro is the money of choice today. It’s possible the future of the lobster industry lies overseas,” said Sonnenberg. “If we can take advantage of the difference in the dollar and the Euro now, we’re automatically helping the problem.”
The only competition in Europe is their nearly identical Homarus gommarus, but one dealer said “They catch in a season what you catch in a day” so Europe’s demand can never be filled by its own product. Sales of frozen lobster to Europe could increase if a 20 percent tariff was removed, he added.
Andre Martin of New Brunswick and the Maritime Fishermen’s Union said he recently went on a trade mission to Europe and saw “bycatch lobster selling for 16 Euros, that’s $24 Canadian. If 20 percent of domestic customers don’t want lobster, go to Europe and sell 35 percent more.”
Everyone agreed that advertising lobster as eco-friendly is a good idea, but lobster buyer Rice said, “The lobster industry in the U.S. and Canada was eco-friendly before the term got popular, but this eco-labeling thing is scaring me more than anything ever did before in my life. We need to control it, not put it in the hands of people that could shut us down in a minute.”
Other suggestions made by participants for lowering lobstermen’s costs or increasing the product’s value, included: