PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — On the heels of last year's record-shattering catch, another bountiful lobster harvest is expected this year in Maine. But the outlook for the upcoming season is being tempered by high fuel costs, high bait costs and a still-fragile economy.
Maine fishermen last year caught more than 90 million pounds of lobster, breaking the previous record of 81.2 million pounds in 2009. Even though the resource is in strong shape and signs are pointing to another whopper of a harvest, lobstermen are approaching the season ahead with caution.
"You never know what Mother Nature has in store for you," said Wayne Ciomei, a lobsterman from Stonington who began hauling traps this week. "If we can get the price for our catch up a little bit, that helps counter the price of bait and fuel because that's a killer for us."
Even in a state where lobster is king, last year's harvest — 93.4 million pounds valued at $308 million — was remarkable.
The catch was particularly impressive in the waters off the eastern half of Maine's long jagged coast, while the take in the western part of the state was relatively flat. In eastern waters, lobstermen caught about 72 million pounds — up 55 percent from three years ago. Fishermen caught more than 31 million pounds in Hancock County alone; that's more than the catch for the entire state 20 years ago.
After lobster prices tanked following the global economic meltdown in 2008, prices last year went up for the first time in three years. Lobstermen received an average of $3.31 a pound for their catch last year, up from $2.93 a pound a year earlier.
But fishermen are cautious this spring as they start setting and hauling their traps, said Carl Wilson, the state's lobster biologist with the Department of Marine Resources.
"For parts of the state, 2010 was an extraordinary year. But fishermen are looking at more than just the amount of lobster they catch," Wilson said. "They're looking at the price of lobster, the price of bait, the price of fuel. I don't think you'll find too many people with ... irrational exuberance."
Besides taking a chunk out of profits, Portland lobsterman Chris Andrews said rising fuel prices could put a damper on tourism and what people choose to spend their money on.
"With fuel prices up, people might eat less lobster," Andrews said.
The season could get off to a sluggish start with the cold and wet spring keeping water temperatures down. The conventional thinking is that lobsters are relatively inactive in cold waters, but once the water warms up they begin moving about on the ocean floor, crawling closer to shore and into traps in search of a meal.
Still, there are reports of lots of small lobsters being caught in traps, which suggests the catch this summer and fall will be strong, said Maine Lobstermen's Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron.
In Stonington, Ciomei said his sons, who fish year-round and have been pulling traps from offshore waters, have had strong catches so far this spring, despite the cool weather. Shrimp fishermen over the winter were finding lots of juvenile lobsters in their nets, he said. And last year, he caught more legal-sized and smaller sub-legal lobsters in his traps than he has at any time in his 35 years of fishing.
"I've never seen so many lobsters in my life," he said.
Now that the Maine lobster harvest has topped 90 million pounds in a single year for the first time, can 100 million pounds be far behind? Not long ago, the idea of 100 million pounds was laughable — but so was the idea of 90 million pounds.
"We're coming off a string of record or near-record years," Wilson said. "Twenty-five years ago, if we'd said the harvest would be 94 million pounds, we would not have been taken seriously."