The dollar value of reported lobster landings in Maine hit a record high in 2005 despite a decrease in the reported amount of lobsters that were caught, according to preliminary numbers released this week by the state Department of Marine Resources.
In 2004, the first year lobster dealers were required to report their landing figures to the state, $285 million worth of the crustaceans were caught in Maine’s waters. The preliminary figures for 2005 indicate that $289.7 million worth of lobsters were caught and brought ashore in Maine last year.
Despite the increase in overall value, the total reported weight of the captured creatures was down from 2004. Two years ago 70.8 million pounds of lobsters were caught in Maine but last year that number fell to just under 63 million pounds, according to the DMR tally.
With nearly 63 million pounds of lobster selling for $289.7 million, the average per-pound price for both hard- and soft-shell lobsters was $4.60 in 2005. That’s an increase over the equivalent 2004 average price of $4.03 per pound and a jump of more than a dollar from the 2002 average price of $3.32 per pound.
Carl Wilson, DMR senior lobster scientist, said Friday that the higher price is “probably what saved the fishermen” during the summer. Low landing counts in the middle of last year made many in the industry worry that yearly catch might be significantly lower than it had been in 2004, he said.
“The strong [fishing in] October and November really made up for lackluster fishing in July and August,” Wilson said.
The relative success of 2005 for many fishermen depended on how many traps they maintained and where they set them, according to Wilson. Some may have had a bad year, he said, but there is no overall indication that the Gulf of Maine lobster population is declining.
“You can’t have record years every year,” Wilson said. “These are good times for the lobster industry.”
Bob Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said Friday that the preliminary 2005 figures are not a surprise.
Experts predicted the catch would decline but the value would increase because of a shedding period last fall that affected landings, he said. Soft-shelled lobsters tend to be less active while waiting for their new, larger shells to harden, resulting in fewer lobsters being caught during shedding season. Except for the past few years, lobsters have shed before fall.
Because lobsters shed during the early fall, when landings historically have been high, they could be more active than normal this spring when they migrate back in closer to shore, according to Bayer. He said fluctuations in yearly landings figures are to be expected.
“I don’t see anything that has happened in terms of the stability of the population,” he said. “The lobster fishery in the United States is probably one of the best-managed fisheries there is.”
Lobstermen aren’t necessarily making more money because the catch value and per-pound price have gone up, industry experts have said. The rising price of fuel has pushed their costs up, as has the availability and expense of acquiring herring, which fishermen use for lobster bait.
Heidi Bray, marine scientist with DMR’s Boothbay office, said Thursday that the agency has yet to receive 13 percent of the monthly reports from 2005 that dealers are required to file with the state. She said some historically active dealers may not have conducted any business last year, which means that they do not have to file any 2005 landing reports, while others may not have reported their landings for a specific month.
“We’re not expecting them to change drastically,” Bray said of the 2005 landings figures, “but we are expecting them to change.”
The figures could go up or down, depending on whether a dealer fills in missing information or has to correct already-reported figures, Bray said. Each year DMR typically receives numbers from the previous year into the summer months.
State lobster scientists have cautioned against making a direct comparison of recent figures to landings totals from before 2004, because dealers were not required to report their figures to the state before 2004.
But for dealers who have consistently reported their landings since 2002, Bray said, landings are down 18 percent over the past four years. Though landing reports were not required in 2002, DMR believes that is when actual landings, which include those dealers did not report, peaked in Maine, she said.
In 2002, the reported figures for lobster landings in Maine indicated that at least 63.6 million pounds of lobster worth just less than $211 million were caught in the state’s waters. Between 1950, when the average per-pound price for Maine lobster was 35 cents, and 1990, reported landing totals in the state hovered around 20 million pounds a year.