Let 'Em Eat Lobstah!

    There's a lot of free-living wildlife in the sea that's hurting, but one charismatic marine animal is still hanging tough. On a recent weekend here on the Maine coast, Ada and I ordered four nice-sized lobsters from a local fishermen. We ate two of them boiled on Friday, one in a stew on Saturday, the other in a salad on Sunday. The total cost of the four crustaceans: ten bucks.

    The conversation around the country these days is about bulls and bears. But here in eastern Maine the talk is mostly about wildlife-lobsters, to be precise, which have plummeted in price to 20-year lows. In 2007 the price to fishermen on the wharf was $4.44 per pound. It dropped below $3.00 this fall and in some places kept right on tumbling to $2.00. Every “lobstertrician” I know is singing the blues.

    This time of year generally sees the best fishing for that delectable item marine biologists call Homarus americanus, and the lobster fishery hasn’t experienced the catastrophic results of over-harvesting that crippled so much of the finfish industry. What's happened is there's a glut in the traps, and on the market.

    Prices are linked to the tumult on Wall Street. Whipsawed investors are eschewing fancy fare like lobsters, champagne, and caviar, and for all I know  subsisting on beer and burgers. Anyway, they’re not buying lobsters. The fact that Maine lobstermen ordinarily sell much of their catch to Canada hasn’t helped, because Canada isn’t buying either. Canadians process much of the seafood they buy from the U. S., but the failure of several banks in Iceland (ripple, ripple!) has dried up the source of loans those dealers need to wheel and deal.

    Meanwhile, fishermen’s expenses have soared. Costs for diesel fuel for their boats, and not-so-incidentals like bait, buoys, and traps, have reached extravagant highs. Now the state is coming together to help fishermen over the hump before winter arrives. An industry campaign is aimed at coaxing restaurants and supermarkets to lower their prices, to levels below what they paid originally for the inventory. One town created a fall lobster festival, producing a holiday atmosphere with costumes and seafood dinners,  all proceeds going to fishermen.

    And so, while the nation’s fat cats grub along on grits and gruel, we pore folk Down East are living high on the crustacean. Tamalley, anyone?

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