The Gulf of Maine is the lobster frontier with almost all lobster fishermen relying exclusively on the lobster harvest to earn their living. Most other species of fish in the gulf have been depleted, including the natural enemies of the lobster. For example, great schools of Cod use to feed voraciously on baby lobsters floating near the surface. Today those schools are gone, having been depleted by 1990. While this has not been good for the Cod, it’s done wonders for the lobster harvest. Record harvests have been recently recorded.
Even so, the life of a lobster fisherman is a tough life. Up before dawn and out to sea in all kinds of weather conditions, the job is often dangerous and difficult. Studies show the average boat size for the Lobster Coast is 32 feet, which is perfect for the summer when the lobster are close to shore among the rocky inlets crowded with traps and bouys. But when the seasons change, the lobster can migrate out as far as 20 miles, where larger lobster boats are employed to carry the heavier gear and work the deeper waters. There are no restrictions on vessel size, but few lobster fisherman operate boats larger than 50 feet.
Selling and buying lobster often creates a special relationship among the fishermen and the lobster dealers. A full service dealer will supply dockage, moorings, fuel, bait, credit and other services to a boat and in return the dealer is expected to have the right to buy a boat’s entire day catch. Still, in most cases the boat owners are free to sell their catch to whatever dealer they choose. However, many boat owners value the dealer/service relationship, and dealers often agree to pay the boat owner the prevailing price. This saves time and benefits both the boat owner and the dealer. The proceeds of the days catch is then divided between the boat owner and the crew. Maine lobster dealers often pay the boat owners in cash. An entire Maine village can be built upon a dealer’s operation providing opportunities for not just the fishermen, but for jobs in support services as well.
Maine dealers, in general, are prohibited form owning lobster boats. And boat owners usually do not own and operate buying stations, nor do they have the means of marketing their catch. The dealers depend on the fishermen, and the fishermen on the dealers. There are so many active dealers, — about 3,500 according to the state — that they can exert little influence on the price of lobster. The daily prices are usually set by what the wholesalers in Boston and Portland, Maine are willing to pay. The price can change daily depending on market demand. Prices from one wholesaler to the next may vary as little as a nickel per pound. A common practice is for dealers to pay cash to boat owners and for wholsesalers to pay the dealer within a day or two by electronic funds transfer.
While the boat owners sell directly to the dealers, the dealers then have to pack up and transport the lobster to the wholesalers in Boston, Portland or New York. With gasoline prices high, the ground transportation cost can run from $.25 a pound to $.50 or more. Often times a dealer will net only 2% commission on the gross sale. The only way a dealer can make money is to be able to buy the harvest from hundreds of boats.
The state of Maine has steadily reduced the number of traps a lobster fisherman can set. But the typical full time boat owner sets only about 500 to 600 traps at a time in the prime seasons. Out to sea about 4.5 days a week, the typical lobster fisherman will haul about 250 traps per week. A trap has to be pulled at least once every several days as hungry, captured lobster will begin to cannibalize one another after only a few days. What seperates the men from the boys is that experienced fisherman know the lobster migration patterns and lay claim to closely guarded territories. While there is some state regulation over territories, the waters beyond 3 miles are under federal jurisdiction leaving the fishermen to enforce their own boundaries. While Maine lobster license transfers are restricted, territories are often passed from one generation to another.
According to the Department of Maine Resources, there are about 9,000 licensed lobster fisherman. The value of the 97-million pound 2010 harvest totaled more than $307 million. Maine lobster fishermen are not getting rich in this pursuit.
Boat prices, the price at the dock to the dealer, is lowest from Summer to early Fall. The boat price rise in late fall and December when the daily catches decline and the peak holiday season begins. Prices are highest during January and February. In April, when lobster landings increase, the price drops slightly as the fisheries begin to gear up. In May every thing is in full swing and lobster prices fall as supply increases.
According to reports, only a few hundred boats fish year round. This is because the lobsters are further out to sea requiring more fuel to get to the traps. The haul per trap is less and due to the depths of the water and the fact that the lobster move around less in the cold water. And with winter weather, the traps can not be hauled as frequently. But while winter harvesting is a challenge not for the faint of heart, prices from November to April can triple the summer time rate. This provides a powerful incentive to boat owners with loans to pay back and gear to buy.
Dealers often manage buying stations with lobster pounds that can store millions of pounds of lobster in the off season. This helps to stablize prices somewhat while ensuring ample supplies of fresh, live Maine lobster all year long. This is one reason why at any time of the year, anyone from anywhere in the country can order and enjoy fresh Maine lobster that only 24 hours earlier was swimming along the lobster coast.