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Low lobster prices elsewhere causing concerns here

The economic turmoil happening around the globe, and in particular in the United States, has been causing deep concern for lobster fishermen in Maine who have been seeing their lobsters selling for $3 a pound and less.

And with the lobster fishery set to open off of southwestern Nova Scotia in another month’s time, this is translating to concern on this side of the border, given that the United States is the industry’s largest export market and consumer demand for lobster just isn’t there. “There’s big concern,” says Denny Morrow, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association. “The market demand is quite soft because of the U.S. economy and the kind of economic scare that seems to be filtering through a lot of countries right now.”

Morrow says hopefully things will start to even out, but for the time being, everybody in the business of exporting lobsters is nervous. “My understanding is that the processors are not buying much product from Maine and that is one of the reasons why the price collapsed,” he says. “And also, everybody is afraid to build up too much inventory.”

Fishermen are also worried. Prices have been reportedly low in the fishery that opened Oct. 14 in the Bay of Fundy off Digby with fishermen getting around $4 a pound. Speculation is that the price will open low here too when the fishery opens at the end of November. Traditionally, it’s around the $5 a pound mark.With all of the heavy expenses fishermen have to run a boat, they need to get a price for lobster that makes it worth their while to fish.

If there is a positive aspect in all of this, it’s that the Canadian dollar – which during the last lobster season was on par with the American greenback – has been weakening. On Wednesday it plunged to a three-year low below the 80-cent U.S. mark. Last year a combination of a strong Canadian dollar, high fuel costs and high bait costs were big concerns within the lobster industry. Some of these concerns still exist.

South of the border, it’s the price that lobsters are fetching and the lack of demand that is causing grave worries among lobster fishermen in Maine.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has been holding emergency meetings to talk about the global financial crisis and the implications of that crisis on their lobster catches and markets. The news has not been good and there hasn’t been an expectation of things improving anytime soon.

On Oct. 14, was reporting that the lobster price decline had hit historic proportions with boat prices falling to $2 or $2.25 a pound in some areas. The publication was reporting that lobster was less expensive than hamburger.

And still, people in the United States are not going into restaurants to eat them. Part of the problem likely stems from the fact that lobster is often touted as a luxury item. And with people concerned about the economy, an expensive lobster meal in a restaurant doesn’t appear to be on their to-do list.

In response to the situation, supermarket chains in Maine have been lowering their price for lobster and there are reports that people are taking them up on the bargains.

The board of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is meeting twice a week to identify things it might be able to do to influence the situation and get its membership through the crisis.

In information it released to its membership, the association says the processing industry in Canada has been affected by a lack of credit and soft consumer market. It says some Canadian processors have stopped buying the product because some already have a lot of inventory on hand, some can’t get the credit they need to buy the product, and others don’t want to generate more supply than they can sell.

The Boston Globe recently reported that some restaurants have been asked to lower their prices for a lobster meal to make them more affordable to the public.

There has been talk in Maine, along with some general agreement, that given the slack demand for lobster it would be prudent to limit the supply to prevent a glut in the market. There hasn’t been support to shut down the fishery and stop the supply of lobster.

The crisis has also caught the attention of Maine Governor John Baldacci who has expressed his concern about the impact of rapidly falling lobster prices and the impact of this on fishermen, dealers and processors. “This crisis involves thousands of families spread along the coast,” he says. “We’re talking about the very lifeblood of many small towns.”

Aside from exploring financial initiatives through government to help hard-hit families, the Maine governor is encouraging the public to go out and buy and eat lobster. On Oct. 24 he set up a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the lobster industry.

Other ideas being thrown around by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has included lobster fishermen limiting fishing so lobsters are not landed unless they can be sold. Another suggestion has been for the government to intervene to slow the supply of Maine lobster entering the market, so that supply is not outpacing demand. Ideas over the past couple of weeks have also included taking a week off, limiting the fishery to a certain number of days per week and taking traps out of the water to limit the catch.

But none of these ideas come with a guarantee that any such actions would lead to a better price or stabilize the market. The goal, however, remains to bring supply back in line with demand.

The Maine Lobster Promotion Council also has a put some initiatives into play.

Back in Canada, Morrow says lobster promotion is something he’s always felt is needed, but is lacking, in the lobster industry in Nova Scotia, particularly at this end of the province. “The industry needs a promotion fund, especially for live lobster,” he says. “I’m not sure that right now in the extraordinary economic circumstances it would be an answer, but it is certainly something over the longer term that we need to do.”

The lobster fishery off southwestern Nova Scotia employs thousands of people and is a major economic driver for the region.