After spending three days in Maine with lobster fishermen Mike Davis, Ryan Sheehan and Chris Andrews one thing is clear; these guys love their job. Awaking at 4:00am to meet them down on the docks in torrential rain, we pulled up and were greeted with smiling faces excited to get on the water. We all boarded the boat and huddled in the main cabin trying desperately to stay dry in the horrible conditions. As we motored our way out of Portland harbor, Mike was telling us about how he can’t imagine doing anything else, “Today might be a little different story, but when you wake up and it’s a beautiful, calm, sunny morning I can’t imagine not going out and hauling traps.”
As we approached the first buoys I ventured out onto the back deck where Ryan was prepping to haul up the traps. Standing next to the bait, which were huge drums of dead fish, Ryan could not tell me enough about how much he loved hauling traps. This is his first season back fishing; he was a plumber for 3 years until he got laid off last fall. He now views losing his plumbing job as a blessing in disguise as he told me he was miserable as a plumber.
Despite passion for their work, the lobstermen say they are just not making enough money to survive. Chris Andrews told me they need to be getting about 3 dollars a pound for their catch in order to turn a profit. The day we were on the boat, the price was approximately $2.60 a pound for lobster. When I asked Chris how they pay their bills he told me they either have to dip into their savings or use credit cards. As a result, some lobstermen have resorted to selling lobsters directly to customers on the side of the road or out of their houses in order to make ends meet. Lobster fishermen traditionally have sold to lobster dealers for a boat price who then distribute the lobsters for a higher price to consumers. When lobstermen sell directly to customers they are able to get more for their lobsters than if they sold to dealers.
Bill Bayley, a lobster dealer whose family business has been dealing lobsters for over 100 years, says lobstermen are hurting the entire industry when they sell on the side of the road. “It doesn’t help because the only way that they can sell their product is to sell it cheap and they got to sell it cheaper than an established business,” says Bayley. “In Portland it forces all the people along the street there, shops and stores, they have to drop their prices down and then that means they pay less for the lobsters they do buy and that depresses the market all together.” Bayley also argues that if lobstermen are going to continue to sell their own lobsters they should be subject to the same rules and regulations that he is.
The relationship between the lobster fishermen and the dealers is strained to the breaking point now. Bill Bayley and 12 other lobster dealers sent a letter to the Maine Marine Resources Commissioner asking for the state to intervene. This infuriated the lobster fishermen and both sides are not backing down.
Right now the state is hesitant to intervene. George Lapointe, Commissioner of the Maine Marine Resources Department told us, “I’m reluctant for government to get involved and to say as a fisherman or a dealer you can do this or you can’t do this in regard to price.”
At the end of the day the relationship between lobster dealers and lobster fishermen is a co-dependent one. They have to find common ground for each of them to survive and they will.