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Steaming Ahead: April 2020

It’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago so many of us were able to come together during the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. Our world has changed significantly since then. We now live each day with palpable anxiety as we stare into the face of the unknown. Most of us are holed up at home. Many are coming to grips with the reality of distance learning for our kids who would give just about anything to go back to school. Some, like me, are lucky to be able to work from home. But for too many, work and income has ceased to be a reality.

The news isn’t great for the lobster industry. Markets for seafood are shrinking rapidly, and it appears that we have a long road ahead. Like everyone else in the seafood industry, lobstermen have been hard hit by the closures of restaurants, casinos, cruise ships and pretty much any social gathering you can think of. More than 80% of seafood is consumed through restaurants and food service so we are highly dependent upon this sector. While the timeline for the coronavirus and its corresponding economic disaster are unknown, we must prepare for long-term impacts. Governor Mills did not mince words about the importance of Maine’s seafood economy in her recent letter to President Trump urging him to “marshal the resources of the federal government and work with our Congressional delegation to provide tools that will help our seafood industry survive this unprecedented moment.” Mills warned, “It is clear that the collapse of the international and larger domestic markets will devastate Maine’s commercial fisheries.” The Governor called for relief programs to include “direct financial assistance, subsidies, operating loans or loan deferment, modifications to existing programs to make them more accessible to fishing and seafood businesses.” The MLA is also working to make sure Maine’s lobster industry is not forgotten as Congress hammers out the details of a stimulus package for our nation. MLA teamed up with several Maine seafood industry associations on a letter to our delegation highlighting a list of economic responses for Congress to consider. “Maine’s independent fishermen, harvesters, aquaculturists, shoreside and supply chain businesses are being dramatically impacted by this disaster and we need both short-term economic relief and long-term investment to protect, promote, and preserve Maine’s iconic seafood industry and the working waterfront that supports us,” the letter stated.

Right whales remain highly endangered. NOAA photo.

In the good news category, there is no news to report on whales. In all seriousness, spring is a slow season for the lobster fishery. This gives us time to come together as an industry to understand what is going on and plan for whatever lies ahead. Commissioner Keliher has stated that he does not have any immediate plans to close the lobster fishery in response to the coronavirus, a position that the MLA supports. DMR has also suspended the 30-day wet gear storage rule. If you don’t have a place to sell your lobsters, traps that are out can remain in the water without the risk of an enforcement penalty. If your gear is on land or you are bringing traps in, this will give you time to work on gear marking! With such a poor market outlook, what should lobstermen do? Lobstermen are a fleet of individual business owners; it is up to each of you to decide whether or not it makes sense to fish. Commissioner Keliher sent a notice to the lobster industry advising “harvesters and dealers must put aside their differences and must actively communicate with each other about the realities of the market.” He continued, “harvesters must refrain from landing product if there is no market for it” and “dealers must refrain from buying product for which there is no market in order to minimize loss associated with inventory that can’t be sold.” This is prudent advice because overburdening the supply chain when there are so few customers could damage lobster prices in the longer-term. I reviewed lobster industry data over the last five years to get a sense of how this crisis is affecting our industry now and what we could be facing if this drags on into summer, fall or even winter (see table). By almost every measure, March is one of the least important months of the year for lobstermen, ranking second to last on number of lobstermen fishing, number of lobster trips made and proportion of annual value and landings for our state. But for those who are fishing it is an important month, ranking first in average boat price and fifth for the average value of each trip. The next three months, April to June, are also fairly slow for Maine lobstermen. While the number of active lobstermen increases each month as gear is set, (69% of active fishermen have their gear out by the end of June), these three months rank low for overall landings and value, and are lowest for average earnings by harvester each month and the average value of each trip by month. The situation changes dramatically from July to September. August ranks as the month with the most active lobstermen, the highest number of trips, and the highest landings and value. While August ranks lowest for average boat price, it represents the third-highest earning month for individual harvesters. Overall, the five-month period of July to November accounts for 84% of landings and 80% of value for Maine.

Any scenario in which there is no market for your catch is scary. But based on the natural ebb and flow of our industry, we have some time to plan before the real hurt of this economic crisis engulfs us. And to keep some glimmer of optimism, remember that lobsters not harvested are not going anywhere; they will stay on bottom. If they shed, they will harden up and gain value. As we proved in 2019, even if the season is delayed, our fleet is skilled, efficient and capable of making up those landings later in the year. Remember, there are many successful lobster fishing areas in Canada that take place over just a few months. So what’s been done and what is being done? As I mentioned, Governor Mills sent a strong letter to President Trump asking him to dedicate federal resources to support Maine’s seafood industry. The MLA joined four other industry associations asking our Congressional delegation to ensure that the stimulus package has the flexibility needed so that both our self-employed and incorporated businesses can benefit from these federal programs. Commissioner Keliher is holding a weekly lobster industry COVID-19 call to bring industry stakeholders together and is closely monitoring the situation as it unfolds. The weekly call includes state officials, delegation staff and industry leaders from the harvester and supply chain side so we can collectively understand the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and strategize on how we can work together to keep our businesses solvent. The MLA is grateful for this opportunity for our industry to work together in a transparent manner. The MLA remains in close contact with state officials, our delegation, Maine’s lobster dealers, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative and our board and members. We will continue to try to understand how coronavirus is impacting lobstermen, our industry and our communities. We will continue to keep our politicians informed and let them know what our industry needs to ensure that it remains an economic pillar for Maine when this crisis is over. The MLA will advocate for rational, sound decision-making by politicians and regulators, and for accessible relief programs and financial assistance to support our industry. This crisis is bigger than all of us, and pretty much everyone in the world has been affected. It is nothing that anyone can fix. For each of us to get through will require patience and discipline. Please know that the MLA will continue to do all that it can to ensure that Maine’s lobstering businesses remain financially solvent as this crisis unfolds. We promise to keep you informed as we learn more.

The Maine lobster industry is strong and resilient. So is the MLA. We are here for you. We will advocate for you. We will get through this. Stay safe and stay healthy.

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