Lobstermen in Maine and Canada at odds over falling prices

By Ian Austen  /  NY Times News Service, OTTAWA

Sun, Oct 20, 2013 - Page 14

Lobsters do not respect the lines on maps that define the Canada-US border. They traverse the seabed contentedly munching on herring from New England to Newfoundland.

For the lobstermen up top, the international boundary is very real and respected. However, there has been more cross-border tension as both sides struggle to find ways to earn more in an era of record harvests that are lowering the prices they get.

Last year, Canadian lobstermen, angry about a surge in low-cost imports from Maine, briefly blocked lobster-laden trucks from entering Canadian plants, raising charges of threats and intimidation in Maine. That was followed this year by a strike for higher prices in Canada, one swiftly undermined by the tactical error of lobstermen setting their traps before tying up their boats.

On the other side of the border, Maine lobstermen and the state governor fear that the state’s new US$2.4 million marketing plan to help lobstermen will be undermined by trade rules that transform most Maine lobsters into a Canadian product.

The surfeit of lobsters has pushed prices fishermen get down to levels not seen in decades, as low as US$1.20 a pound (0.45kg) this summer in some parts of Maine, from a 10-year average price of just under US$4. Much of that decline has not been passed along to consumers feasting on lobster rolls or a whole steaming crustacean. Lobster can go for US$15 a pound at a grocery store.

“Something is seriously wrong, somebody’s getting a whole ton of money,” said Charles McGeoghegan, a lobsterman on Prince Edward Island since the age of six. “We know that the fishermen aren’t getting it.”

The price drop has brought anxiety to lobstermen in both countries.

“I love what I do for a living. Every trap is like opening a Christmas present; I can’t wait to see the next one,” Steve Train, a lobsterman for 35 years who lives on Long Island, Maine, said by telephone while eating a lobster sandwich for dinner. “I think we can survive this, but after two years in a row of it, you get a little nervous.”

“There’s a real injustice here,” said Michael McGeoghegan, also a lobsterman for 35 years, president of the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association and the father of Charles. “If the consumer wasn’t paying the big dollars, I’d say: It’s OK, it’s fair. One billion dollars changes hands in the Atlantic Canada lobster fishery and somebody’s getting the money.”

Each side thinks it is the other. Depending on who is counting, 50 to 70 percent of Maine’s lobsters end up in Canadian processing plants. Lobster Council of Canada executive director Geoff Irvine said that while a majority of Canadian lobstermen probably want a ban on imports from Maine, Canadian plants are economically viable only if they receive US lobsters when the Canadian fishermen are idle.

He said Canadians should also remember that the US buys about three-quarters of Canada’s harvest.

“We’ve got a lot of eggs in the American basket,” Irvine said. “We don’t have any intention of getting into a fight with the Americans.”

Too late for that. Across the border in the US, Maine Governor Paul LePage is bothered by trade rules that transform Maine lobster into Canadian lobster once it is processed in Canada. He claims that the processing industry in Canada is heavily subsidized. LePage has pushed for Maine to become self-sufficient in processing within three years, an objective most in the industry believe is unattainable.

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.”