Happy tail: Maine lobstermen crack a good year despite virus

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine's lobster catch dipped slightly last year as fishermen dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, but the final totals were better than some feared.

Fishermen caught more than 96 million pounds of lobsters in 2020, the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday. That total broke a string of nine consecutive years in which harvesters brought at least 100 million pounds of lobsters to land.

Maine is by far the biggest lobster fishing state in the country, and the harvest is central to the state's economy and heritage. Members of the industry feared at the outset of the pandemic that it would be difficult to equal previous years' hauls because of the toll of the virus on the economy and the workforce.

However, the 2020 catch would have been a state record as recently as 2010. A boom in annual lobster catch began more than a decade ago.

Fishermen were selective about when they went fishing last year to avoid bringing too much product to land when demand was lower, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

“The industry was certainly facing a lot of challenges, and fishermen purposefully slowed their effort down to keep pace with the market,” McCarron said. “So those are great numbers.”

Prices were also competitive. The marine resources department reported the catch was worth more than $400 million. The lobsters were worth $4.20 per pound at the docks, which was 62 cents less than 2019, but higher than the previous 11 years before that.

The industry achieved strong prices despite difficulty shipping and worldwide economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. The industry focused on opening up domestic retail sales, such as at supermarkets, to keep prices strong, McCarron said.

The industry also pivoted to more online direct-to-consumer sales. Some lobstermen even took to selling lobsters from tanks in their own garages and homes.

“Maine fishermen and seafood dealers weathered one of the most difficult years in memory, but through hard work and an unwavering dedication to quality, they were able to once again provide tremendous value for seafood consumers, and a vital economic foundation for Maine’s coastal communities,” said Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat.

Maine lobster fishermen brought a record lobster haul to docks in 2016, when they caught 132.6 million pounds. Last year's 96.6 million pound catch is a little more than 5 million pounds less than the 2019 total.

The growth in lobster catch off Maine has happened as the southern New England lobster haul has cratered. Scientists have said the warming of the ocean has caused the lobster population to shift northward. Maine's lobster industry competes with Canada for the same species.

The industry has faced numerous other challenges in recent years. New rules designated to protect rare North Atlantic right whales imperil the future of the fishery, industry members have said.

The lobster industry has also navigated a few volatile years in trading with China, a key buyer. Former President Donald Trump's trade war with China caused exports of the crustaceans to plummet. Trump then brokered a new deal with China, which agreed to start buying American lobsters again last year.

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