Booming lobster population pinches profits for Maine's fishery

Booming lobster population pinches profits for Maine's fishery
Lobsterman Steve Train checks a lobster while hauling traps in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

PORTLAND - By all rights, lobsterman Steve Train should be the envy of commercial fishermen around the world.

Lobster populations in Maine are booming like never before. Tourists readily dole out US$15 (S$19.20) or more for lobster rolls, those delectable morsels of seafood on a bun. And environmentalists have praised the harvest as a rare example of sustainability in a sea of overfishing.

Enter market forces. Last year's record haul of 126 million pounds (57 million kg), double that of just a decade ago, led some to wonder whether lobster might go the way of cheap, everyday foods like the chicken nugget or TV dinner.

Prices paid to lobstermen at the dock plummeted and have not recovered. They are barely enough, says Train, to cover fuel and bait.

"It's hard to make a business plan the way things are going," said the 46-year-old lobsterman, who has fished the island-studded waters of Casco Bay since he was a teenager.

Even as many of the world's fisheries have floundered, the Maine lobster harvest, recently certified as sustainable by the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council, has reached epic proportions, but success is relative.

"I'm sure the corn farmer, or the wheat farmer, or chicken farmers all felt the same way at some point," said Pete Daley, a manager at Garbo Lobster Co in Hancock, Maine, one of the country's largest distributors.

"People say, 'I'm not getting the price I used to get, or the price I deserve.' But what we're seeing here is an industry that's evolving."

No one knows exactly why lobster populations have increased so quickly.

The answer, says marine biologist Robert Steneck, is likely a combination of warming water temperatures, the overfishing of inshore predators like cod and a long history of forward-thinking conservation measures.

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