Maine’s lobster season off to an early start

Maine lobster production is the state’s most lucrative fishing industry, bringing in about $457 million and 124 million pounds of lobster in 2014. The lobster fishing season in Maine usually kicks off in April. As spring fills the air, lobstermen fill their boats with traps and head out on the ocean to set them. The months of May and June are typically slow for fishing as the water continues to heat up. However, by mid to late July, the Gulf of Maine is typically significantly warmer, which triggers the seasonal molt. Lobsters begin to shed their old shells, which allows them to grow in size and become large enough to meet Maine’s strict size requirements for harvesting. Newly shed, or “new shell,” lobsters are very hungry which makes them perfect for trapping. The meat of a new shell (or soft shell) lobster is extremely sweet and tender and draws many tourists to lobster shacks and restaurants in Maine during the months of July, August, and September.

While this pattern of the spring and summer Maine lobster season is typically consistent every year, this year Maine is experiencing an unusually early start to the lobster season. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute reported that temperatures in Maine’s coastal waters have been warm throughout the beginning of 2016. The temperatures at 50-meters at four coastal buoys in the Gulf of Maine remain approximately one degree Celsius warmer than normal. Across the region, sea surface temperatures have been running 0.5–1 degrees Celsius warmer than normal over the past week, with the Maine coast being at the cool end of the range. Based on the current buoy temperatures, The Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s forecast predicts a 41 percent chance that the season will start three weeks earlier than normal, a 56 percent chance that it will start two weeks early, and only a 3 percent chance that it will begin one week early. Andrew Pershing, GMRI’s Chief Scientific Officer stated, “July 4 is typically considered to be a normal start date for the lobster fishery in Maine.” He went on to explain that “if the timing is off by just a few weeks, it can have a major impact throughout the supply chain.”

Similar early starts to the Maine lobster season have occurred in past years. This year’s predicted forecasts and uptick dates most closely resemble those of 2012 (June 12-June 19) and 2013 (June 19-June 26). In 2012, warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine caused Maine lobsters to move inshore and molt earlier than normal, causing peak harvesting of lobster to start in May, about three weeks ahead of schedule. The catch jumped more than 20 percent, from 104 million pounds in 2011 to 127 million pounds in 2012. Ultimately, the supply chain was not ready for this influx, which led to lower prices. As a result, lobstermen earned as low as $2 per pound of lobster.

However, Katherine Mills, GMRI associate research scientist, explained that “participants in the fishery and supply chain have learned from the 2012 experience and devised a number of strategies to cope with an early start.” She further emphasized that the goal of the GMRI’s forecast is to “give people in the industry advanced warning so they can plan ahead for what is shaping up to be a very early season.” Moreover, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Patrice McCarron said a lot has changed in the past four years, enough that a repeat of the market conditions in 2012 is less likely if the warmer-than-average temperatures continue. She explained to The Portland Press Herald that in 2012, “nobody was ramped up and we didn’t have the customers ready” for either the early season or the volume of lobsters that were caught. This year, however, processors and dealers have invested in bigger and better facilities and tanks that can hold more lobster for longer periods, so an oversupply is less likely. McCarron added the lobster catch also has stabilized since 2012 and its market has grown stronger. That means there are ready buyers for soft-shell lobsters, as well as the traditional fresh, hard-shell lobsters. Moreover, if the catch does come in early, the industry’s marketing team is ready to combat it. Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, told The Portland Press Herald that the organization has promotional materials and contracts with food magazine editors all lined up, “it’s just a matter of turning tha t on.”

Two Colby Students, Ka-tie McLaughlin ’17 and Mikayla McLaughlin ’19 work at McLaughlin Seafood, their family business in Bangor that specializes in local fresh seafood and shipping lobsters. They explained to The Echo that “so far this spring, the price of lobsters has stayed a little higher due to windy conditions,” and that they have even had to close the takeout early because it’s so cold outside. For now, we will have to wait and see how the lobster season plays out for the rest of the year. Hopefully, it is a successful season and we can all enjoy some exceptional Maine lobster.

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