Count Maine’s lobster industry among the casualties of the worldwide economic crisis.

The wholesale price of Maine lobster, considered low all summer, has plunged more than 20 percent in the past week, to as little as $2.60 per pound in some harbors. Dealers say falling financial markets have ruined consumers’ appetite for luxury items such as lobster, and the international credit crisis has effectively shut off orders from major processors in Canada.

Those and other factors undercut demand just as Maine entered its peak lobster season – and as fishermen are paying near-record prices for fuel and bait.

“This is the worst time for this to happen,” said Peter McAleney, owner of New Meadows Lobster in Portland.

Dealers such as McAleney are asking lobstermen to haul fewer traps to limit the glut. Lobstermen, meanwhile, are talking about tying up their boats, either to save bait and fuel or to try to drive prices back up.

Some in the industry are calling for state intervention, including an emergency shutdown to stabilize the market.

Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources George Lapointe said he plans to meet with industry members, but can shut down a fishery only because of a population collapse, not a market collapse.

“We’re at the time of the year when (lobstermen) count on earning a lot of money and landing a lot of lobster, and the price is bad and getting worse,” Lapointe said. “The prices are, from what I can tell, the lowest they’ve been in almost two decades. … Think about just the cost of living compared to two decades ago.”

At the end of September, the wholesale price – or boat price – was between $3.50 and $4 a pound along the coast, according to lobstermen and dealers. That was already below the typical price in recent years.

On Wednesday, the price was about $3 per pound in Portland and $2.60 to $2.75 per pound in the midcoast region.

“There’s rumors they’re going lower, to $2.25 or two bucks,” said Sonny Leeman, manager of the South Bristol Fishermen’s Co-op. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they keep going down any more. It’s a very scary situation as far as I can see right now.”

The average annual price paid to lobstermen was $4.44 per pound last year and has not been as low as $2 since 1980, according to state data.

John Rich, who fishes out of Portland Harbor, hauled in about 250 pounds of lobster Wednesday and sold them for $3 a pound.

“In the last week, it’s down 75 cents” per pound, he said.

Rich said he spent $275 on bait for the traps, another $80 or so on fuel for his boat, and will pay his sternman more than $100. After taking money out to pay for the boat mortgage, maintenance and other expenses, Rich said he’ll have little left over.

“I can do the math and it doesn’t lay out,” he said.

The less expensive lobsters trapped in the past week are just about to reach the fish markets and grocery stores, dealers and retailers said.

“We’ve got lobster coming in tonight and tomorrow,” said Geoff Denley, partner at Free Range Fish and Lobster on Commercial Street in Portland. “We’ll be at $3.99 (per pound) all weekend until we run out. That’s cheaper than a hamburger.”

Some fishermen are talking about banding together for a voluntary shutdown, Rich said. But for now, he’s got expenses that have to be paid and he plans to simply work harder.

Dealers are hoping to persuade lobstermen to cut back their fishing effort, but to keep working in order to avoid supply swings and disruptions.

“Our boys have to keep fishing because we can’t lose the markets we do have,” McAleney said.

Lobstermen, on the other hand, often want everyone to tie up so that the sacrifice is fair, and the lobsters will be left in the ocean instead of caught by a rival. Some lobstermen tied up in August because of frustration about low prices, but the action did not have a widespread impact.

MacAleney said members of the industry will meet as soon as Thursday to talk about the market and what to do. In the meantime, he said, he can’t sell lobsters fast enough to make room for the catches being brought in each afternoon.

“The last time it was anywhere close to this was after (the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks). But that was just a temporary problem,” he said.

Now, he said, it’s related to the worldwide financial crisis that spread from Wall Street to Europe, Asia and even Iceland, all key parts of the global lobster market.

“This isn’t a little lobster problem,” he said. “It’s a worldwide problem.”

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Some in Maine’s lobster industry say sales go up and down along with the stock market, according to Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute in Orono. People clearly do buy more lobsters in good times than in bad, he said.

“It’s a celebration dish and it’s something that people order out when there is something that’s going on that’s positive,” Bayer said.

John Norton, president of Cozy Harbor Seafood Inc. in Portland, said he and other dealers have seen a softening demand since spring, coinciding with the high energy prices and the weak housing market.

“People used to enjoy treating themselves to the finer things. … I think that dynamic has changed both economically and psychologically. Now I think to a great extent, people are looking at how can they cut back,” Norton said. “The convolutions on Wall Street and in Washington have just kind of put an after burner on that.”

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