ROCKLAND — Low prices, lack of processing facilities, and the risk of losing the family tradition of lobstering were among the topics discussed at length Tuesday afternoon as harvesters met with the state’s marine resources commissioner.
“Let fishing families be fishing families,” said longtime lobsterman Richard Alley of Addison.
He said the state should allow lobstermen, when they retire, to transfer their quota of lobster tags to their children.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said he understood the sentiment but that each time such a law has been proposed, it has been determined to be unconstitutional since the ability to harvest public resources can’t be passed down in that way.
About 55 people attended the first of a series of four meetings that Keliher plans to have along the coast to hear from lobstermen about the state of their industry. The session was held at Oceanside High School East in Rockland.
The issue of low prices was a dominant theme as the commissioner acknowledged there has been an erosion of prices since 2008. Over the same time period, the catch has doubled to 124 million pounds last year, resulting in supply outpacing demand.
The Maritime Provinces of Canada have an inventory of 20 million pounds of live lobsters, a huge amount, the commissioner said.
David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said harvesters cannot withstand continued low prices for their hard-shell lobsters. He said the state needs to work with Canada on dealing with supply-and-demand issues.
“Right now, we’re both losing,” he said.
Keliher said the state has made increasing lobster processing capacity as a top priority to deal with the supply and demand problem. There has been progress on that matter, he said, but there are still challenges facing those who want to open processing plants. Those challenges include the high cost of energy and the ability to find workers.
Four companies have approached the Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development with an interest in starting new processing plants. Keliher said a lot of capital is necessary however, to make such as project feasible.
Rocky Alley asked if there was federal money available to help processors in the United States so that Maine would not be so dependent on the prices Canadian processors pay.
Keliher said there was no federal money available for that.
Linda Bean said a lack of workers is a big problem.
“We’re competing with people on welfare who prefer to stay home,” Bean said. She said it has been a particularly difficult problem in Rockland, where she wanted to start a second shift at her processing plant in the Industrial Park but has been unable to find enough workers.
She said the $8 per hour is not attracting workers even as she tries to process other seafoods such as crabs so that the work is less seasonal and more year-round.
Shane Sullivan of Auburn, who represents the Maine Lobstering Union, said it was important for processors to pay a livable wage.
Keliher said it was also important that Maine’s seafood industry be diverse.
“We’re too reliant on one,” Kelier said. “We got here through bad management and a change to the ecosystem. There is enough blame to go around on how we got here. But I don’t have a damn clue on how to correct it.”
The Tuesday afternoon forum also touched on other issues such as shell disease.
Keliher said less than 1 percent of lobsters are found to have this disease, which makes their shells soft. He said the problem is not an epidemic nor does it affect the safety of the meat. He said those lobsters simply have to be sent to processing plants rather than sold live.
The commissioner asked the lobstermen whether they had seen an increase in green crabs, an invasive species that can harm soft-shell lobsters. Few lobstermen said that they were seeing a problem with that.
There was some optimism at the meeting.
Ty Babb of Martinsville said his son, who graduated from Oceanside a little more than a month ago, has begun lobstering and was excited about catching 400 pounds. He said that bodes well for the future.
“They are willing to work harder and for less money,” Babb said.
The commissioner said while that was a success story on the student program, the big flaw in it is that many other students drop out of school when they get their licenses.
“We need to end anything that discourages students from completing their education,” he said.