Lobsterman Greg Turner keeps a sandwich-board sign at the end of his driveway that advertises fresh lobster for sale from his garage, an attempt to claw for a few extra dollars by reaching buyers directly.
With prices stuck on low and expected to fall further this summer, he's skirting the traditional sales route by cutting out the dealers who usually sell lobster catches to retailers, restaurants, processors and other buyers.
Prices for lobster plunged last year to levels not seen in 20 years, leading Turner and a growing number of other lobstermen to sell from the backs of pickup trucks, from garages, and even on Craigslist. By going directly to consumers, lobstermen say they can make roughly $1 more per pound than what they get from lobster dealers.
"No one wants to do it," said Turner, a longtime fisherman whose garage is a bare-bones retail operation with cold-water holding tanks, a scale and a cash register. "If the price hadn't gone into the toilet, I wouldn't have done this in the first place."
His wife tends shop when he's on his boat. He takes no charge cards and doesn't cook or ship lobsters. He said he's just a lobsterman trying to make ends meet.
"When I get to the point where I pay for fuel and bait, and my helper and I don't make any money at the end of the week, I have to do something," he said.
For the most part, lobstermen are selling lower than seafood shops and grocery stores.
In the past couple of weeks, lobstermen were selling one-pound lobsters for about $4.25 to $5.25 a pound, roughly $1 a pound more than they could get from lobster dealers. At the same time, Portland-area seafood shops and supermarkets were selling one-pounders for about $4.99 to $6.99 a pound.
Lobster dealers and retailers are taking notice — and they don't like what they see. Not only do the lobstermen's direct sales mean less for them, they say lobstermen are actually making matters worse for themselves.
In a letter to state fishery officials, a group of 13 dealers and retailers said the direct-sales trend is "counterproductive for harvesters, the resource and the state." They say retailers in particular are at a competitive disadvantage because of their overhead costs.
By selling lobster at rock-bottom prices, lobstermen are forcing retailers to mark down their prices, the letter says. To make up for the lower prices, lobster dealers will have to pay lobstermen less — thus driving down lobster prices even more.
"By selling their catch directly to consumers, harvesters may be temporarily getting a higher price for their own catch on that day, but they are really forcing down the boat price in their area," the letter states.
Unprepared for price free fall
Lobster prices fluctuate widely throughout the year, sometimes daily, based on supply and demand. Lobstermen and dealers have symbiotic relationships that can sometimes get tense when prices fall.
But nobody was prepared for last year's free fall as demand for the state's signature seafood screeched to a halt amid the global recession. Last year in Maine — which has 4,500 active lobstermen and accounts for 80 percent of the nation's catch of American lobster — the value of the harvest fell to about $235 million, down $50 million from 2007.
For the year, lobstermen averaged just under $3.50 a pound for their catch, down from $4.44 in 2007, with prices falling to under $2.50 a pound in some places last fall. The outlook isn't bright this year, either.
Fishermen in Canada this spring were getting about $3 (U.S.) a pound for their catch — about half what they were getting two years ago, said Ed Frenette, executive director of the Prince Edward Island Fishermen's Association.
Things have gotten so bad in the lobster-rich Maritime provinces that Canada's federal government in recent weeks came forth with $75 million in assistance for the industry. About 50 Prince Edward Island fishermen sold lobsters out of their trucks this spring to bring in extra money, Frenette said.
Prices are low in Maine, as well, with fishermen getting $1 to $1.50 less per pound wholesale for their catch from dealers than they were getting a year ago.
From traps to table
Several lobstermen have posted ads on Craigslist, the online classified site, in search of customers. Eric Love of Yarmouth has had a few sales there, but nothing to brag about, he said.
"It's scary to have a big investment with my boat and all these traps," said Love, 26, who's been lobster fishing for eight years.
Three lobstermen set up a small retail shop of their own, Griffin's Lobster Barn, in Scarborough; their slogan is "from our traps to your table."
Longtime lobsterman Jim Holden has been selling his catch sporadically along Portland's Commercial Street from the back of his pickup truck. His plywood sign reads: "Lobsters fresh off the boat."
He has little control over costs — for fuel, bait and other expenses — and he's fishing 800 traps, the maximum allowed. But at least he can control how he markets his product, he said.
Holden hasn't had much trouble selling his lobsters, he said, but the true test will come when both the supply and demand spike up in the summer tourist season ahead. Holden, like other lobstermen, sells only a portion of his catch on his own; he sells the rest to lobster dealers.
"The bottom line," he said, "is they need you, and you need them."