No summer fun for America's lobster fishermen

In case you haven't heard, there's something of a crisis going on in the coastal waters along America's Eastern Seaboard. No, it's not the Russian sub that spooked U.S. defense officials when it patrolled the area last month. The problem is that a big drop -- 30 percent in some cases -- in lobster prices is pushing many of the fishermen who trap the clawed crustacean toward financial ruin.

The Labor Day holiday amounts to a moment of reckoning for the trappers, as it unofficially marks the end of lobster bakes and lobster rolls, at least for a while. "In the mind of the public, the summer is over," says Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. "The thought of eating lobster sort of dwindles for consumers."

Adler says wholesale prices for lobster in the Bay State have fallen from about $4 to $4.25 per pound last year to currently about $3 to $3.25 a pound -- a level not seen in a decade. He says $4 a pound is the break-even point for the fisherman, as they've got to pay for bait, fuel, insurance, dockage fees and other expenses. "With the price right now in the $3-per-pound range, they can't meet their bills."
With the next big lobster-eating season not until the end of the year -- "Europe goes wild for lobster for Christmas and New Years," Adler says -- lobstermen are getting creative about ways to maintain demand. For example, Adler has been lobbying the Massachusetts Governor and Legislature to declare October 7 "Massachusetts Lobster Day." "It's a chance to get lobster back in peoples' minds in between Labor Day and Christmas," he explains.

But so far, the plan to claw back a market for the delicacy in the down period hasn't been successful. "They want money, which we don't have," he says.

Historically, lobster has been known as a "celebration" food, to be enjoyed on grand occasions with fine wine and good company. But the global economic meltdown has forced many consumers to curb their spending, especially on non-essentials. The lobster biz has suffered, just as have champagne sales and demand for sparkly jewels at Tiffany & Co.

In Maine, the biggest U.S. producer of lobster, with 68 million pounds harvested last year, the fact that consumers aren't ordering up as much lobster has led prices for the hardshell variety to decline to $3.25 per pound in the spring, from a more usual $5 per pound, according to the QSR Magazine, which covers the restaurant industry. "I call it the slow death," Brian McClain, vice president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association tells the publication.

Massachusetts, which harvested about 11 million pounds of the bony animal last year, like other states also faces strong competition from Canada, the world's biggest producer, Adler says. But despite the wholesale price declines, Adler says it's unclear whether U.S. consumers are really seeing the benefits when it comes to cheaper lobster on restaurant menus. Instead, he continues to see lobster entrées priced over $20. "A $12.99 lobster dinner would be more reasonable," he says.

With supply not a problem, lobster fishermen have thought about campaigning to make the food considered more of an everyday staple rather than something that's more of a splurge. But even though that could shore up demand, the move might mean the fishermen could never raise the price to keep apace with their rising expenses, he says. "You don't want it to become everyday bologna," he says.

In one corner of the world at least, Larsen's Fish Market in Menemsha on Martha's Vineyard, lobster sales are brisk. Owner Betty Larsen expects to sell more than 1,800 pounds of the stuff by the end of the Labor Day weekend. "It is supposed to be a great weekend," Larsen says. "It is supposed to be the last hurrah." Unfortunately, that is exactly what lobster fisherman are afraid of.
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