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Maine lawmaker working to remedy low lobster prices putting pinch on fishermen

Maine lobster crisis.jpg

AP

The lobster crisis in Maine has reached a boiling point. 

As prices for the succulent shellfish drop, a top U.S. lawmaker is calling the situation a "disaster" and said measures must be taken to aid struggling fishermen and reform the lobster industry, which is vital to the state's economy. 

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said Thursday that wholesale prices for lobsters in Maine have hit rock bottom -- selling for less than $1.50 per pound in some places, the lowest price since the 1970s -- and have threatened the livelihood of local fishermen who rely on the world-famous, tasty crustaceans to earn a living.  

"It's a disaster for the fishing industry," Pingree told FoxNews.com. "These guys can't afford to go fishing for anything less than $2, $2.50 a pound when you think of the price of fuel (for boats). They've got to earn a living."

Maine's lobster catch typically picks up around the Fourth of July, as the crustaceans begin shedding their hard shells in favor of new soft shells and lobster-loving tourists flock to the coastal state on summer vacation. 

But an unusual phenomenon happened this year: Soft-shell lobsters began showing up in great numbers in traps six weeks earlier than normal, which Pingree called "unprecedented." 

Soft-shell lobsters, which have less meat than hard-shell ones and which can be easily cracked open by hand, are sweet and juicy but sell for a lower price. 

The soft-shell lobsters do not ship well long-distance because they are too fragile and therefore must be sold on the local market or sent to processing plants in Canada. But processors there are unable to handle the excessive supply of Maine lobsters this year because Canadian lobstermen had such strong catches earlier this spring, resulting in a backlog. 

"We have a huge oversupply of the kind of lobster that has less value," Pingree said. "A big part of our market is shipping them to everyone else." 

Pingree said that while there is no easy remedy for the problem, one long-term solution calls for Maine to start building its own processing facilities. 

"That hasn’t been the focus of the industry for so long," she said, adding that, "We’ve never really developed sophisticated methods to ship soft-shell lobsters."

Bob Bayer, a professor at the University of Maine and executive director of the Lobster Institute, said his data showed the average price of lobster in the state to be higher than what Pingree and others reported.

"The average price is around $2.50 for new shell lobsters, which is the problem, and $4.50 for hard shell lobsters," Bayer told FoxNews.com. "It's $1 to $1.50 lower than last summer."

On Monday, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher sought to quell fear and anger among those affected by the unusually low lobster prices. 

"The department will not be closing the lobster fishery," Keliher said. "Based on the concerns that have been raised by the industry, I have reviewed our statutory authorities and they do not allow us to shut down the fishery for economic reasons.

"We have heard that fishermen are seeking to impose a de facto shutdown of the fishery and coercing others into complying by threatening to cut off their gear," he said. "The state will not tolerate any trap molestation, and any such actions will be met with targeted and swift enforcement or other appropriate action. Harvesters should also be aware that such actions may be in violation of federal antitrust laws."

 FoxNews.com's Cristina Corbin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.