Massachusetts fishermen feeling the pinch of lower lobster prices, rising fuel costs

Consumers are seeing lower lobster prices at the stores this summer, but now commercial fishermen are feeling the pinch. They say lower prices paid at the dock coupled with rising fuel-driven expenses are making it harder for them to earn a living.

“What we’re seeing this year is astronomical fuel prices, very high bait prices, scarcity of bait, and we’re seeing a starting price that was actually coming off a high high this winter to something that is a little bit lower than expected,” said Nick Muto, a commercial fisherman out of Chatham.

Muto, 41, said the rising expenses and lower costs paid for his lobster catches at the boat — which increased by about 60% last year, but have since fallen — have made him change his business strategy.

In past years, he said he had allegiance to one or two lobster dealers, but now with prices paid at the boat dropping from $9 per pound to the $7–$8 range this year, he spends much of his time searching for who will pay him the best price.

Business publishing company Urner Barry reported the wholesale price of a live, 1.25-pound hard-shell lobster fell from $12.35 per pound on April 1 to $9.35 per pound on May 1. This year’s price drop over that period was the largest since 2018.

“Really our hands are somewhat tied because lobsters are my only source of income for the next six months or so,” Muto said. “We’re going to have to spend longer times on the water to minimize the fuel costs. We’re really going to be scrounging for bait.”

Muto said he is considering selling directly to consumers from the boat, in an effort to cut out the middleman. Dealers can set the prices at a higher rate in the fish market, so they pay a lower price to fishermen than what they charge stores and restaurants, Muto said.

“As fishermen, we don’t get to control the price of our lobsters,” said Steve Holler, a commercial fisherman out of Boston. “We’re at the mercy of the dealers.”

Holler, 59, has been fishing since he was 14 years old. He said fishermen are hurting this year, with rising fuel and overhead costs, and global supply-chain and transportation problems.

His daily overhead expenses have doubled, from $500 last year to nearly $1,000. Holler said the cost of 300 gallons of fuel has tripled from last year, from $600 to $1,800, and a lobster trap has increased in price, from $115 to $200.

Fishermen are also grappling with new federal regulations around right whale protections, which has resulted in costly gear modifications.

“The fishing industry, from the boat to the dealer to the restaurant, is kind of like the domino theory or domino effect,” said Holler. “It starts with the fishermen. We incur a lot of costs. If our overhead expenditures exceed what our profits are, we’re the first domino to fall.

“If I’m the first domino to fall, the lobsters are not going to magically appear in a dealer’s tank. (They’re) the next domino to fall and restaurants won’t get the lobsters.”

To cut costs, Holler said he is trying to haul fewer traps per day. He is factoring in water temperature to try to figure out where the lobsters are to maximize the efficiency of his bait.

Muto said he hopes the lower prices at the dock won’t fold his business completely, and that he’ll be able to weather the storm, but he is not overly optimistic.

“I have zero confidence in our administration,” Muto said. “Given the political climate right now, I see this getting much worse before it gets better. This situation that we have in the country right now will cause a lot of fishermen to go out of business, and that’s tragic really.”

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