Fall lobster catches on rise in Maine, creating angst for those facing debt
Slow summers create angst for those facing debt
PORTLAND, Maine - Lobstermen in the '90s and earlier this decade went like gangbusters in August, catching Maine's signature seafood, making it the number one month to catch lobsters.
But lobstermen now get their biggest hauls in the fall, and October has emerged as the top lobster-catching month. Even catches in November, typically a fraction of those in August, have exceeded August's in two of the past four years.
The shift in the peak season has created angst among lobstermen, especially those who stand to finish in the red without a strong close to the season.
Lobstermen, dealers, and scientists say a number of factors combine to make the lobster season's peak a moving target, from water temperatures and ocean currents to more lobstermen using bigger boats to fish farther offshore.
"It goes in cycles," and there's nothing that can be done about it, said Peter McAleney, owner of New Meadows Lobster.
Old-timers say the catch, which last year totaled 72.6 million pounds worth nearly $300 million, was stronger in the fall than in the summer in decades past.
They're right, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. In the 1960s, October was the top lobster-catching month statewide, and September had the largest monthly catches on average in the 1970s and '80s.
In the 1990s and earlier this decade, August was the number one month.
But beginning four years ago, the strongest catches started coming later in the year - with October on top the past two years. In 2004 and 2005, catches in November were higher than those in August.
With the slow summer season this year, lobstermen are banking on another strong fall.
Water temperatures in the spring were cold, leading to the slow start, said Jack Merrill, a longtime lobsterman from Little Cranberry Isle.
"It's returned back to the way it traditionally was," Merrill said. "We used to have later seasons, and September, October, and November were the best months."
At the least, the later season generates anxiety.
If the season gets off to a slow start, lobstermen who are running up expenses pin their hopes on stronger catches later, said Dana Rice, a dealer in Gouldsboro.
In some years, the temperature may not warm up until well into August, said Carl Wilson with the state Department of Marine Resources.
"A 3-degree change in temperature can mean a week to threeweek delay in the molt," he said.