The bottom has fallen out of the wholesale lobster market, which is bad news for the lobstermen and good news for consumers.
The price being paid to lobstermen at the dock is at a 20-year low, according to Bill Adler, the executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. He said the problem is tied to the economy and an oversupply of lobsters.
As a result fish markets are beginning to drop their prices for lobsters. At the Net Result in Vineyard Haven, the price for a one and a half-pound lobster is $8.50, $2.45 less than a year ago.
At Edgartown Seafood, halves are going for $7.99. Cooked lobster meat is now selling for $35 a pound; owner Daniel Larsen said a year ago the price was $50.
“This spring, the price of lobster was cheaper than bologna,” said Mr. Adler. “The economy is the big reason.”
The association keeps track of prices through surveys of lobstermen in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. Mr. Adler said lobstermen are getting prices today that compare with 1985 and 1990.
In Boston, for example, lobstermen are getting from $3 to $3.50 a pound, while a year ago they were paid $4.25 to $4.75 a pound.
Mr. Larsen of the Net Result said local lobstermen are earning a little more than their counterparts in Boston. He said he pays at least a dollar more. “I feel bad for the local lobstermen and I envy them too. I would love to be fishing for lobsters, but not for the money they are making,” Mr. Larsen said.
The best prices on lobsters can usually be found in the spring and fall, when demand is down and supply is up, Mr. Larsen said. Low prices are a rare phenomenon in July.
“Everything is cheap. Swordfish is cheap. Everything is cheap. Food, chicken is cheap. We’re all talking about the rug being pulled out from under the price of seafood. The state of the economy is a big part of it. As much as I would like to make the same amount of money I made a year ago, I can’t. I have to accept what is going on now,” Mr. Larsen said.
Lobsters are shipped around the world, but some of that has stopped too. Mr. Larsen said earlier this year cruise ships in Miami which used to serve lobsters stopped ordering them. “The cruise ships used to get 8,000 pounds a day of New England lobsters and now that market is nonexistent. That means there are 56,000 pounds of lobsters a week that have to be sold somewhere else,” Mr. Larsen said.
Paul McDonald, who fishes out of Menemsha, has been lobstering for 25 years. “It is really tough,” he said.
Betsy Larsen, who runs Larsen’s Fish Market in Menemsha, is married to a lobsterman, so she knows well what the fishermen are dealing with. “Even if my tanks are chock full, I have never turned my lobster boats away,” she said. “I have four local boats. Where else can they bring their lobsters?”
Betsy and Louis Larsen are siblings and while their stores are separate businesses, the two share an interest in helping local lobstermen.
The number of lobstermen on the Vineyard is not what it used to be. According to statistics from the Division of Marine Fisheries last year, there are 15 commercial lobstermen in Chilmark and six from other Island towns. Chilmark lobstermen landed 70,200 pounds of lobsters last year and the town ranked 29th out of 48 ports in the state for landings. Gloucester ranked first with 1.5 million pounds.
Bill Alwardt, an Oak Bluffs conch fisherman, has a lobster permit, but doesn’t use it. “I haven’t set a lobster pot in four years,” he said.
“I bring 95 per cent of my lobsters from off-Island because they can’t catch enough here,” Mr. Larsen said. To meet his needs beyond what the local Island lobstermen can provide, Mr. Larsen gets lobsters from Maine and from Canada.
Mr. Adler said the decline in the price of lobsters this summer has compounded his concern about the viability of the fishery. “I am worried about these guys. The older guys may have less payments to make because they’ve already paid for their boat, but I am worried most about the younger guys who have loans to pay, who are saying right now: ‘this doesn’t pay.’
“This is the time for you to go down to the store and buy a lobster,” he said.