How Maine Has Managed an Amazing Lobster Comeback
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what started as a glorified cottage industry now supports a big chunk of this state’s economy.
By Steven Butler
Glaring dock lights pierce the darkness as we don tall rubber boots and power out of Tenants Harbor, in midcoast Maine. Johnny Alden, the talkative sternman, points to a growing band of orange spreading across the eastern horizon. “You could sell a picture of that for $1,000,” he says.
Soon it’s boogie time. The 29-year-old is busy stuffing bait bags with herring and quickly rebaiting lobster traps after he empties the catch. Meanwhile, our boat’s captain, Peter Miller, pulls up 190 traps, and drops about 300 pounds of “bugs” into the onboard tank. Not a bad haul given that many lobsters are already scampering to deep waters to escape the impending winter, and that Miller can count on a healthy price for his catch this year.
It isn’t what most folks expected from an industry that was recently getting cracked to bits. Just three years after prices in Maine collapsed amid a glut of these 10-legged invertebrates, they’ve since surged to their highest in half a decade even as harvests float near record annual highs of around 125 million pounds — twice what it was a decade ago, and six times a typical haul in the 1980s, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Indeed, fresh lobsters from the Pine Tree State are making a quiet and surprising comeback.
Perhaps the biggest change is a come-to-Jesus moment that has buoyed this $500 million industry by taking marketing far more seriously than in the past.
A comeback of this scale is partly the work of man and partly an accident of nature. An unusually cold winter (even by Maine standards), which delayed this year’s harvest, has certainly helped heat up prices of late. But over the years, younger fishermen have also begun shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars on supersize boats and engines that can venture farther out into the ocean. These have featured bottom-reading scopes that have increasingly helped with placing traps, and more aerated tanks to keep fragile lobsters healthy. And improved shipping containers have lifted both prices and this market’s size by safely moving the bulk of Maine’s finest to distant countries.
In fact, exports of the state’s lobsters to China grew from almost nothing five years ago to around 2.7 million pounds last year, with South Korea and Hong Kong showing similarly large increases, according to WISERTrade, which tracks exports. Even with China’s recent economic struggles, other markets are kicking in with expanding appetites. “We’re still looking at growth,” says Hugh Reynolds, who owns Greenhead Lobster, one of Maine’s largest live shipping operations.
Perhaps the biggest change is a come-to-Jesus moment that has buoyed this $500 million industry — with its nearly 6,000 independent producers — by taking marketing far more seriously than in the past. It’s something other industries have also done, of course, though companies in Maine changed course after depending too heavily on Canadian seafood processors, which ran out of capacity in 2012 and left many of the state’s lobsters languishing. Since then, local players have launched the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, paid for via lobster fishing licenses, to plug their beloved product, and hired a global PR agency, Weber Shandwick, to help. One mission: to rebrand the state’s harvest of relatively fragile — now shippable — “shedders,” or soft shells, into “new shells” and recruit celebrity chefs to assist.
Combined, the tactics seem to be working. These days, lobstermen are setting up their own companies, such as Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, to process and market their own product and avoid the pitfalls of relying on outsiders. Barton Seaver, a celeb chef and author of For Cod and Country, is backing the MLMC’s vision and argues that Maine’s strict licensing limitations have helped sustain the state’s industry, along with rules that lobstermen throw back lobsters that are too small or too big, or egg-bearing females, which are then protected for life with a notch in the tail.
But the abundance of lobsters here is a result of unsustainable fishing practices and warming of the oceans, argues Richard Wahle, a research professor at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences. The overfishing of cod, for one, has nearly wiped out a key predator of the lobster. And while warming temperatures have left the Gulf of Maine more hospitable for the clawed creatures, it’s basically wiped out the lobster industry south of Cape Cod. Meanwhile, some environmental activists continue to argue against the inhumane treatment of lobsters as they get plucked and then shipped around the world, which has kept some stores — including Whole Foods Market — from stocking live lobsters. A company representative says that it’s “too difficult to maintain consistent conditions to ensure the health and well-being of live lobsters outside their natural environment for such a long period of time.”
Sure, a lot more could go wrong in the future, including further warming of the seas, the spread of shell disease or an economic downturn that kills prices for this luxury item. Yet even at 63, Miller — who’s in good shape — has no intention of retiring. His father, also a lobsterman, was active into his 80s. “I love doing this,” he says. “Why would I quit?”
An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of the annual lobster harvest.