Maine lobster catch dips to lowest level in 6 years in ’17

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The state that dominates the U.S. lobster haul saw the catch fall to its lowest level since 2011 last year, yet the industry is still strong and the crustaceans remain easily available to consumers, regulators said Friday.

Maine fishermen caught a little more than 110.8 million pounds (50.3 million kilograms) of lobster last year, following a stretch of five consecutive years in which the state topped 120 million pounds (54 million kilograms) annually, the state Department of Marine Resources announced.

Fishermen in Maine, who typically catch about 80 percent of America’s lobster, also made slightly less money. They were paid $3.91 per pound at the docks for lobsters last year, down from about $4.08 per pound in 2016, the state said. Prices remained steady to consumers, who usually pay $8 to $10 per pound for Maine’s signature seafood item, the live lobster.

Some lobsters took a long time to shed their shells this year, which means it was late in the season before many of them reached legal size, said Patrick Keliher, Maine’s marine resources commissioner. The fishery was also slowed by bad weather in November and December, and the impact of the warming Gulf of Maine remains a concern, he said.

But Keliher added that the 2017 catch number was still the sixth highest on record according to state data that go back to 1880. The $433.8 million in value was fourth highest.

“I think we have to look at that we’ve got a changing environment in the Gulf of Maine, and we’re likely seeing expansion of habitat because of that,” Keliher said. “That could relate to lobsters settling in deeper water.”

Maine’s run of high lobster catches began around 2009, when the state topped 80 million pounds (36 million kilograms) for the first time. The growth of the industry has come at a time when Asian countries are taking a much bigger interest in imported live lobster, and the new markets have helped keep prices up to consumers.

But the heavy catches have also brought speculation about how long such big hauls can last. Rick Wahle, a marine scientist with the University of Maine, has warned that the population of baby lobsters in some parts of the Gulf of Maine has fallen to low levels in recent years.

Many fishermen speculated there could be a drop in Maine’s lobster catch this year.

“This summer was slower, and the landings in general didn’t seem to pick up until later,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “It’s still a massive industry for Maine, and for Maine’s coastal communities.”

Maine officials announced the lobster catch data along with other figures about the state’s fishing industry, which is critical to its history and economic health. The state’s combined fisheries, which also include species such as scallops, clams and herring, were worth $569 million. That is the fourth highest figure in history.

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