- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

PORTLAND, Maine An unprecedented, decade-plus run of prosperity. Persistent warnings of imminent collapse. Worries about whether the landing will be hard or soft.
The stock market? No, the lobster market.
Maine's lobster catch got off to a slower-than-normal start this summer, feeding into existing fears among some fishermen that their boom could be nearing its end.
"The problem is that we've had two or three of just absolutely off-the-chart years," said Norah Warren, manager of the Vinalhaven Fishermen's Co-Op. "This year is a little more like it used to be."
Each of the last four years has yielded a record catch in Maine. Last year's catch was about 57 million pounds, up from 53.5 million pounds in 1999. The value of the 2000 catch came to $186.1 million, compared with $107 million just five years earlier.
Maine's lobster boom is a relatively new phenomenon. Annual landings averaged 20 million pounds for about a century before soaring in the last 12 years.
Lobstermen speculate about when catches will hit the ceiling which scientists have wrongly predicted for several years and just how far they might fall afterward.
"We all wonder," said Martin Molloy, owner of MKM Island Lobster on Matinicus Island. "There are a few banks in this area that are wondering, too."
Mr. Molloy said many lobstermen have taken on debt, buying new boats and pickup trucks during the boom, which started about 1989 and took off in the mid-90s. A 35-foot boat generally costs between $90,000 and $140,000.
Some lobstermen's worries were underscored by the fact that most of Maine's seven coastal counties reported a slight drop last year despite the record catch.
Worries grew in June and July when some traps came up empty. Up and down the coast, lobstermen and dealers say the July catch was dismal compared with years past, but now it's picking up and fishermen are hopeful they will be able to make up for lost time over the next two months.
Prices paid to lobstermen have remained steady for the last few years at about $3.50 a pound.
"Lobstermen are more encouraged by what they see now," said Pat White, a York lobsterman and executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
Mr. Molloy said the lobsters are just late, not gone. "The numbers are starting to come around now."
Lobstermen, not ones to boast about how well they are doing, could surprise everyone come the end of September, said Carl Wilson, chief lobster biologist for the Maine Department of Conservation.
Mr. Wilson said this year's late run could be due to a number of factors, including colder ocean temperatures after a hard winter. Lobsters are sensitive to temperature, and this year Maine's coastal waters are 2 to 4 degrees colder than the 10-year average.
Many old-timers accustomed to the ebb and flow of the lobster fishery have learned to plan for lean times. But there's some concern that the younger lobstermen, who have never seen a "bear" season, are in too deep financially.
Like other Americans, lobstermen and their families have spent freely during the good times.
"A lot of people have a lot of new things and there is some concern with the younger guys that a few may have gotten in over their heads," said Mr. Warren, from the Vinalhaven co-op.
Ed Blackmore, former president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said lobstermen have been making a lot of money the last few years, and they have no trouble spending it. "They're not salting it away in a mattress, that's for sure."
If there were a significant drop in landings, the financial impact would be substantial for the 5,800 licensed lobstermen and the state.
Lobster, Maine's most profitable fishery, is a $400 million to $500 million industry, Maine Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe said. The fishery supports dealers and processors, stern men and bait dealers, and in some cases entire towns.
"When the resource declines and everyone knows it will that will have an impact. It clearly will impact our coastal communities, because people don't have as many choices to go into another fishery," he said.

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