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updated: 1/4/2013 9:25 PM

Maine lobster catch up, value down

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Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine -- The state's lobster catch surged 18 percent last year for another record, but a marketplace glut depressed the value of its signature seafood, causing financial hardship for lobstermen, processing plants and dealers up and down the East Coast, officials said Friday.

The lobster catch topped 100 million pounds for the first time in 2011, and the numbers grew again in 2012 with a preliminary total suggesting a catch of more than 123 million pounds, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Final numbers will be released next month.

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Tensions boiled over in August when the huge lobster haul caused a crash in wholesale prices.

Canadian lobstermen blocked truckloads of Maine's lobster from being delivered across the border to processing plants that create lobster products for supermarkets and restaurants, blaming Maine for low prices.

New figures tell the story: The value of the catch was nearly $331 million, a decrease of $3.7 million from the previous year, despite the greater size. The average price was $2.68 per pound, the lowest in 18 years, the Department of Marine Resources said.

Clive Farrin, who fishes from Boothbay Harbor, said the depressed prices made it difficult for lobstermen to cover diesel fuel and bait costs, causing some to put their boats up for sale. Without strong demand and consumer confidence, he said, the boat price paid to lobstermen will continue to be too low.

"I don't think you're going to see the price change appreciably until the economy gets straightened out," he said. "If people can't make their house payments and their car payments and keep groceries on the table, then they're not going to be buying luxury items, things like lobster."

Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Friday that the department and industry officials will hold a series of meetings over the winter to seek potential remedies for those times when supply exceeds demand, as it did during the summer.

"This unprecedented preliminary landings report provides us with both an opportunity and a challenge," Keliher said in a statement.

The catch has continued to grow even though there are fewer lobster license holders and traps. In 2005, Maine lobstermen caught far less lobster, about 70 million pounds, but the value was $320 million, similar to the current level, Keliher said.

In recent years, the abundance of lobster made it possible for lobstermen to make up for the lower value, but that changed last summer.

With the marketplace flooded, fishermen reeled from the low prices and talked about tying up their boats.

Farrin said lobstermen aren't feeling optimistic about next season. He said those with boat payments and house payments will have trouble making ends meet if things don't improve.

"The ones who have their financial house in order will able to ride it out for a while," he said.

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