Sun, Oct 20, 2013 - Page 14 News List

Lobstermen in Maine and Canada at odds over falling prices

By Ian Austen  /  NY Times News Service, OTTAWA

While it would like more local processing, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is looking for a compromise that would see those Canadian lobsters labeled: “Harvested in Maine, Processed in Canada.”

That is an idea many Canadian lobstermen support, although not for reasons that will restore cross-border harmony. Charles McGeoghegan, who is also a member of Prince Edward Island’s provincial assembly, said that the current system means that “lower quality” Maine lobster is being sold as a Canadian product.

Fighting words, indeed, but the fishermen on each side of the border look for very different crustaceans. Fishermen from Maine, who bring in the overwhelming majority of the US catch, largely harvest recently molted, soft-shell lobsters in a season that is concentrated in July and August. Throughout their lifetimes, lobsters will molt and regrow their shells about 30 times, assuming they are not trapped before then.

Before and after Maine’s summer season, it is time for the Canadian hard-shell lobster. Canadian fishermen trap the live lobsters that most of the world, including Americans, buy.

Unsurprisingly, the merits of hard-shell and soft-shell lobsters are almost a matter of religious dogma. It requires no prompting for almost anyone in the Maine fishery to say that meat of soft-shell lobsters is, as Maine Lobstermen’s Association executive director Patrice McCarron puts it, “incredibly fresh and tender.” Hard-shell lobsters, which sometimes are stored live in tanks filled with frigid water for months, have “a little more of a metallic taste.”

More fighting words. Charles McGeoghegan said he was confident that Maine lobsters would fail any comparative taste. If they are more tender, “it’s because they’re mainly filled with water,” he said.

Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine Lobster Institute, which works with fishermen and officials on both sides of the border, said he was not aware of any scientific flavor comparisons.

However, McCarron acknowledged that soft-shell lobster has a significant shortcoming, aside from its relatively short harvesting season. They are so delicate that ideally they need to be handled “like an egg,” she said.

That leaves traditionally large export markets for live lobsters, particularly Europe at Christmas, controlled by Canada’s five Atlantic provinces.

Whatever resentments they harbor, Canadian and US lobstermen are firmly united on one point. It rankles them that the low prices they are getting have not been followed by similar declines in retail prices.

The problem with prices is there are just too many lobsters and there have been for the past five years. Warmer oceans and the overfishing of cod that prey on lobsters have allowed more of them to abundantly reproduce.

“I think we’re going to see this situation for a while,” Bayer said. “I don’t know how long, and I don’t think anyone really does.”

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