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Researchers Discontinue Annual Lobster Season Forecast After Complaints From Industry

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press file
A sternman holds a lobster caught off South Bristol.

A Portland-based research institute is dropping its yearly forecast of when lobster landings in Maine will begin their annual surge. The move comes after criticism from Maine’s lobster industry about the report’s timing and accuracy, and its effect on lobster prices.

In June 2012, lobsters off the Maine coast began to shed their hard shells, becoming more active and moving inshore earlier than their usual first-week-of-July migration.

“We had record warm temperatures, we had an early start to the summer lobster fishery, lots of lobsters coming inshore almost a month ahead of what they normally do,” says Andrew Pershing, chief scientist at Portland’s Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “The supply chain wasn’t ready for them and the price collapsed that summer, and it was very scary and stressful time on the coast.”

State regulators and lobster industry groups asked the institute whether it could develop a tool that would allow the timing of the annual uptick in lobster landings to be predicted. After a few years studying the issue, the institute started publicizing its statewide predictions in 2015 and again last year.

But last year, and particularly in certain geographic areas, the prediction didn’t match conditions.

Steve Train, who sets traps off of Maine’s Long Island, says last year GMRI at first predicted an extremely early season. Even though that prediction was later pushed back a bit as a cold snap pulsed through the Gulf ecosystem, the media and lobster buyers never really got the message.

“The consumer was expecting an onslaught of soft lobsters early that never came. The demand was down for the higher-priced lobsters that were coming in. And it just didn’t mix well, because people weren’t prepared to pay what they were worth, because they expected them to be cheaper and more common,” he says.

Maine’s lobster industry is booming, with catches and their value more than doubling since 2000 — worth almost $550 million at the dock last year. But it is subject to complex dynamics, from bait prices and market demands to the availability of processors and freezer space, as well as weather and climate variation.

Credit Maine Department of Marine Resources
Maine Department of Marine Resources

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, says GMRI’s predictions added an unwanted extra bit of complexity to the system. And last year the timing of the first prediction had a worldwide effect, as Tselikis learned at the Boston seafood show.

“So there you are at Boston with your customers from South Korea and China and throughout Europe and other nations throughout Southeast Asia. And everybody has Google alerts now and so everybody saw that story and thought ‘Great, we’re going into this market looking for cheap lobsters and that just was not the case,’” she says.

Scientists like Bob Steneck, a lobster specialist at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center, say it’s important to continue baseline research on conditions in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than most other water bodies in the world.

“Ocean temperature clearly really drives a lot of this fishery. It affects how the larval lobster settle and, of course, you won’t see that for 7-10 years. It affects growth rates, it affects migration and movement patterns,” he says.

Pershing says the institute will continue to collect the same data as before, but it won’t be releasing public predictions anytime soon. And as it reconsiders whether and how to revamp the effort, Pershing says the institute will be keeping a weather eye to better accounting for how the timing of such predictions can influence the marketplace.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.