Lobster traps have changed form over the generations, and fishermen now rely more on technology. But the act of lobstering is the same: getting in a boat, grabbing a pair of gloves, stuffing a bait bag and, through experience, figuring out where the lobsters are.
Jason Joyce, 42, knows the routine well, as lobstering is his livelihood and his family’s legacy. He’s the eighth generation in his family to fish off Swan’s Island, which has 350 year-round residents and is located east of Stonington. His father’s side of the family first moved to the island in 1806.
This year he is surprised by the vast number of soft shell lobsters — often called shedders because they recently shed their hard shell in order to grow another. But he maintains perspective. Things come in cycles, he said. Even though he’s never seen so many shedders so early in the season, and his father hasn’t either, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before.
Though he said he doesn’t think the glut of lobsters is a calamity, he knows that overall improvements can be made to the industry to grow consumer demand in order to meet rising supply. The goal should be to bring more stability to lobster pricing.
In 1981, the going price of lobster, adjusted for inflation to meet the equivalent of 2007 dollars, was $5.95 per pound, according to the Department of Marine Resources. In 2007, the going price was $4.75, a decrease of about 20 percent.
It’s not an average price for the year, but last week lobstermen on Swan’s Island were getting $2.30 per pound. Then the price dropped to an astounding $2.05.
Part of the problem — though it may be a good problem to have — is that lobstermen are catching a lot of lobsters due to the effect of conservation measures. Last year Maine caught a record of more than 100 million pounds — about double what was caught 10 years prior.
Dealers have relied largely on Canadian processors to purchase the crustaceans. But when there are a lot of Canadian lobsters, as there were this year, Maine runs out of buyers.
Joyce said he recognizes the need to expand the customer base. That’s why he likes a current proposal for a marketing campaign aimed at spreading the word about tasty Maine lobsters in order to boost sales and, therefore, prices.
A marketing subcommittee has recommended to the state Lobster Advisory Council that at least $3 million be spent on marketing efforts to build global demand for Maine lobster. The Maine Lobster Promotion Council currently spends $400,000. An increased marketing effort would be phased in over three years and would be paid for by lobstermen, dealers and processors.
“I think the price is so low now, as fishermen if we gave up 3 cents a pound or 5 cents a pound and contribute it toward marketing, we’d get that back,” Joyce said.
He also likes the idea of increasing the number of value-added lobster products, which could include frozen lobster tails, frozen lobster meat, lobster casserole or lobster pot pie. It’s important to adapt, and younger generations are less likely to cook a whole lobster.
Another way to help the industry? Be a smart consumer. People who go out for a lobster dinner should search for restaurants that decrease their prices when lobstermen are also getting low prices, he said. If a restaurant or store is honest about the price, it should be rewarded with more business. (And lower prices could result in more sales anyway).
Joyce — in addition to many other lobstermen — have adapted in order to survive, so the industry should, too.
After prices dropped in 2008, Joyce got his state arborist license in order to care for trees. He’s a licensed captain and takes people out in his boat for tours or to fish. He’s a registered Maine guide, and he helps the Penobscot East Resource Center with its groundfish study work. He does all this while putting out 475 traps.
He enjoys and believes in his work.
“I was raised with a strong work ethic of: You really put your heart into it, and you do your best. You won’t fail. You may not make a great living, but you will make a good enough living to support your family,” he said. “It’s a way of life people would pay money for, to be a part of a community like we are.”
When people buy Maine lobster, he said they should remember they are supporting a sustainable fishery. Many conservation measures were passed — with fishermen support — in order to maintain a large population of lobsters. The water is clean. The surroundings are beautiful.
And the lobsters? They’re delicious.