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east coast economy

Fishermen unload and sort lobsters on the warf at Pointe-Sapin, N.B. on the Northumberland Strait on Aug. 10, 2010.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Most years, the week after the August civic holiday would see the kickoff of the lobster harvest in the Northumberland Strait, as scores of boats head out to gather the delicacy that helps sustain the coastal economy.

But an unusually large harvest in Maine has flooded the market and driven prices so low that many fishermen say it won't even be worth trapping lobsters.

"If the prices stay the way they are now, it's going to cost us money to go to work," said Debbie Thompson of Richibucto, N.B. "We'll be running at a loss."

The trouble marks the latest blow to an industry that has seen prices decline over the last five years as fishermen haul in more of the animals. The result, they say, makes it cheaper and easier for consumers to enjoy a lobster dinner at the restaurant or buy one at the grocery store, but has disastrous consequences for those who depend on the crustaceans for their livelihood.

On a larger scale, it could lead to a wholesale redefining of the food's status.

"We run the risk of taking what was once a very special food item – something that was a celebratory meal – and making it a commodity," said Robert Bayer of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine.

The lobster's history makes such a shift a possibility. The animal was once a cheap staple in locals' diets, before modern technology made it possible to transport and export them alive. As the market expanded and fishermen caught them in greater numbers, lobsters' prestige grew but stocks declined.

Better conservation programs in recent years have boosted the number of lobsters, which in turn has depressed prices.

"We've achieved ecological sustainability, we have a strong biomass. Now we have to find out how to achieve economic stability," said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.

Mr. Irvine suggests several methods, including marketing the product to increase demand and sharing information to ensure fishermen are harvesting at the right times.

"The industry has to be more nimble and predict where things are headed," he said.

Added to the mix is climate change, which might account for warmer water temperatures and the big hauls in Maine this year. Over time, it is difficult to predict what such a pattern could do to the fishery.

At Bill's Lobster Fish Market in Toronto, where the lobster goes for $10.99 a pound, owner Bill Cheng says shipments to Europe used to drive prices up after Christmas, when the harvests were done. That demand, however, has fallen.

"For the past few years, the price is quite steady," he said.

The recent surplus was limited to lobsters with softer shells, which are harder to transport, meaning shops outside the region – like Mr. Cheng's – didn't see any lower prices as a result.

But it's a different story on the wharves of New Brunswick, where fishermen are worried about scraping by.

Between the cost of fuel and bait, Henry Augustine says the $2 per pound that his lobsters would fetch today at processors isn't worth it.

"Fishermen have boat payments, they have mortgages to pay, they have families," he said. "If I have to, I may have to go on welfare."

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