Maine fishermen caught a record $253.5 million worth of lobsters in 2004, boosted by a late-season hauling spree that gave lobstermen reason to cheer after a dismal start caused by cold ocean waters and poor weather.

The value of the 63.2 million-pound harvest was 20 percent higher than the previous record of $210.9 million set in 2002, according to preliminary statistics of the Department of Marine Resources (search). The catch will rise several million pounds, and the value millions of dollars more, when the final numbers are tallied.

Besides a late-season rally, the catch rose because 2004 was the first year that seafood dealers were required by law to report how much lobster they handled, state officials and lobstermen said.

So even though the overall volume showed an increase because of the mandatory reporting, the average individual lobsterman's haul was actually down compared to the previous year, said Carl Wilson, lobster biologist with the DMR.

"If you take away all the numbers and ask fishermen or dealers if they handled more lobsters, they'll say they were down 10 percent," Wilson said.

But the value of the catch, he added, is probably unprecedented — even factoring in more reporting from seafood dealers.

The price paid to lobstermen was $4.01 per pound, which is 7 percent higher than the previous record of $3.74 a pound set in 2003. As recently as 1998, lobstermen were averaging less than $3 a pound for their catch.

The price has remained high because the lobster catch in the rest of New England and New York — Long Island Sound (search) in particular — has declined in recent years, said Clare Grindal, executive director of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association (search).

There has been no shortage in Maine, despite warnings that lobster is overfished.

The Maine lobster industry has been on a tear since the early 1990s, when the catch broke 30 million pounds. The catch first exceeded 40 million pounds in 1997, and topped 50 million pounds in 1999.

In 2002, the harvest rose to 63.6 million pounds before falling to 55 million pounds in 2003. The 2004 catch is expected to set a record when the final numbers are tallied.

Lobster continues to be the star of the Maine seafood industry, accounting for two-thirds of the state's $315 million fisheries harvest in 2003. Farm-raised salmon was the No. 2 species, followed by groundfish, clams and urchins.