PORTLAND, Maine — The state's lobster catch brought in a record $364.5 million last year and the size of the catch topped 100 million pounds for a third consecutive year, according to state figures that indicate the fishery remains robust.
Preliminary figures from the Maine Department of Marine Resources put the 2013 catch at 126 million pounds, about 1 percent off the previous year's record catch. But the 2013 catch could end up setting another record by the time final tallies are completed in the coming weeks.
The value of the lobster catch grew more than 6 percent from the previous year, welcome news for fishermen who have seen depressed prices for the past couple of summers. Lobstermen were paid on average $2.89 per pound of lobster, an increase of 20 cents from the previous year, the state said.
The state posted its preliminary figures online as fishermen gathered for the annual Fishermen's Forum in Rockport.
Lobsterman Clive Farren, of Boothbay Harbor, said many lobstermen expected the catch to be smaller.
"I watch it with a guarded curiosity and I hope for the best. Sometimes you get disappointed, and sometimes you get pleasantly surprised," Farren said Friday.
For years, some fishermen and scientists have expressed concerns that Maine's lobster industry was approaching a cliff. And for just as many years, the lobster catch has remained solid.
Lobstermen say things have stabilized compared with two summers ago, when they caught so many lobsters early in the season that a glut caused wholesale market prices to crash. In Canada, lobstermen blocked truckloads of Maine lobster, blaming U.S. lobstermen for the depressed prices. In Maine, some lobstermen tied up their boats, saying it wasn't worth fishing for such low prices.
Industry officials have been working hard since then to better market lobster in hopes of driving up demand and prices, and the state partially attributed the higher prices fishermen received in 2013 to the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
The state-supported program was put in place last year to advertise lobster in untapped markets and earn fishermen higher prices.
"The intent is to build demand for lobster," said Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources.
But it remains a challenging environment for the state's 6,000 licensed commercial lobstermen with high diesel and bait costs eating into their bottom line.
Greg Griffin, who fishes from Portland Harbor, said many lobstermen are going farther offshore as the North Atlantic has warmed over the past couple of years. Fishing up to 70 miles offshore is more dangerous and more expensive than fishing closer to the shore, the traditional way of lobstering, he said.
"The boys are traveling for hours and hours and miles and miles to keep the lobsters coming in, and hoping at the end of the year that they have a profit," Griffin said.
Lobstermen credit conservation measure for keeping the fishery healthy at a time when the region's groundfish — cod, haddock and other species — have been decimated by overfishing.
Maine lobstermen have minimum and maximum size limits and they're required to throw back egg-bearing lobsters, efforts aimed at ensuring that lobsters remain plentiful on the ocean floor.
Farren said he thinks the bubble may one day burst when it comes to record catches, but he thinks the conservation efforts will keep lobster from going away altogether.
"We throw back all the little ones. We throw back all of the big ones. And we protect the egg-bearing females," he said. "So there'll always be something there to catch."
Associated Press writer Blake Davis in Rockport, Maine, contributed to this story.