ROCKPORT, Maine - Maine's fishermen hauled in a huge catch worth a state record $585 million last year, buoyed by an unprecedented surge in the value of the state's beloved lobsters.
Fishery officials said Thursday that the total value of the catch jumped $44 million from 2013 to 2014. Lobsters, which state biologists say have maintained healthy populations, accounted for more than $456 million of the total in 2014, an all-time high according to state data that goes back to the 19th century. Lobsters grew in value by more than $86 million from 2013.
Maine accounts for more than 80 per cent of all U.S. lobster, and fishermen and regulators said 2014 was an especially lucrative year for the New England staple. The total catch of more than 123 million pounds of lobster was slightly off the record years of 2013 and 2012, but value jumped, fueled by growing Asian markets and a summer boom in catch that overlapped with domestic demand.
The growth in lobster value also meant prices to consumers rose in some restaurants and fish markets. Maine's pollock, oysters and softshell clams also all cost more at the dock in 2014 than the prior year. The rising prices reflect a renewed emphasis from industry on the importance of local seafood, Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association.
"We've got a lot of interests from local chefs and local markets," Martens said. "It's an important part of the story of Maine."
A $1.8 million increase in the value of Maine's resurgent scallop fishery also helped grow value, state officials said. The state has implemented new rotational management methods for scallops since the fishery fell to an all-time low in catch in 2005. Scallops, too, are becoming more expensive — state data says they cost $12.78 per pound at the dock in 2014, an all-time high.
The rebuilding of the scallop fishery is an "example of industry and the department working together," state Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said.
Maine's cod catch grew from 130 metric tons in 2013 to 183 metric tons in 2014, but the rebound could be short lived. Federal regulators have imposed deep quota cuts and other restrictions on the Gulf of Maine's cod fishery to respond to the fish's spawning level, which is a fraction of its target. The restrictions meant the price of local cod rose, sometimes to more than $12 per pound, but foreign sources, which are usually a few dollars less expensive, remained easy to find.
The scarcity of Gulf of Maine cod, which is popular in fish and chips, has prompted some environmental groups to call for consumers to stop buying it and regulators to ban fishing for it.
"The giant cod catches of yesteryear are over — these poor fish have been exploited to commercial extinction," said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Maine officials said this year's totals show softshell clams regaining the second-most valuable spot from elvers, which are baby eels. Elvers surpassed the clams in 2012 and 2013, due in part to demand from Asia.
Officials said a new quota system for elvers played a role in their total catch. Elvers fell to about $8.5 million in 2014, down from more than $40 million in 2012, state data show. They are now the state's fourth-most valuable fishery, after lobsters, softshell clams and Atlantic herring.