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Olympia Snowe

Save Maine's Lobstermen
By Senator Olympia Snowe
Nov 15, 2008 - 10:58:08 PM

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Senator Olympia Snowe represents the State of Maine in the United States Senate.
The economic downturn has permeated virtually every realm of our society. For sale signs blotch front lawns in our hometowns, prices at the corner gas station rise and drop with guaranteed unpredictability, and daily announcements of job losses have become as ordinary as morning weather forecasts. Yet one symbol of the depressing economy that has Mainers worried is the falling price of one of our state's greatest sources of pride and identity: the lobster.

As one of the major stimulants to the state economy, the Maine lobster industry landed more than 63 million pounds of lobster in 2007, amounting to over $280 million. Lobsters also serve as a historic and symbolic Maine attraction, filling restaurants and attracting tourists for over one hundred years.

But as fuel costs and bait prices rose to astonishing heights over the summer months and continue to fluctuate, this once flourishing industry now faces the lowest prices since the early 1980s. The global scope of the economic crisis has drastically cut demand for lobster across the world, slashing the price paid to lobstermen from about $6 per pound in the spring, to less than $3 now. These dedicated members of Maine's coastal workforce also face a looming Federal mandate to replace much of their rope to protect endangered whales. These factors have a created a perfect storm of hardship for our state's lobster industry.

One contributing factor to the recent collapse of lobster prices has been the lack of processing infrastructure here in Maine. Currently, 70 percent of Maine's lobster catch is sent to processing facilities in Canada, leaving our domestic lobster industry reliant on slumping global demand and unstable foreign credit markets. To counteract this damaging trend, I joined State Senator Kevin Raye (R-Perry) to organize a meeting among leaders of the lobster industry and representatives from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Department of Commerce to develop creative methods to encourage lobster processing facilities to return to the state. As one means of assistance for the struggling industry for the long-term, an increase in domestic value-added processing of Maine's signature seafood will reduce the fishery's reliance on volatile foreign financing and bring new jobs to the state.

Within the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act (MSRA) that passed in January 2007, I included language requiring that the Secretary of Commerce, the SBA, and other Federal agencies to establish methods to promote investment in domestic seafood processing facilities for fisheries that currently send large percentages of their catch overseas for processing. I called on these agencies to comply with the MSRA mandate and encourage investment in domestic fisheries, bringing lobster processing, and the jobs that come with it, back to our shores.

Still, processing is but one component of an overall strategy to stabilize this vital industry and help prices rebound to a level that will keep our fishermen in business. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has the authority to assist farmers in times of crop surpluses, and I have also asked the Secretary of Agriculture to work with me to seek creative ways to apply such programs to our lobstermen's present plight. And as the Maine Lobstermen's Association and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council look for other methods to develop new and invigorate traditional markets, I will continue to press the SBA and the Commerce Department to assist their efforts by any and all available means.

I am encouraged by the determination and strength of all those associated with the lobster industry. Dane Somers of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council has taken notable steps by launching a new advertising campaign. Patrice McCarron and the Maine Lobstermen's Association are working with local financial institutions to help alleviate the burden that the economic decline is having on local businesses throughout the state.

I've been quite inspired by the efforts and spirit of my fellow Mainers to band together and support the lobster industry. On dinner tables and restaurant menus across the state, Maine lobster has become more even more ubiquitous than usual.  Family lobster cook-outs and merchant giveaway programs have helped stabilize lobster prices considerably and have been a symbol of solidarity on behalf of the state to the struggling lobstermen. I hope with Thanksgiving just around the corner, Mainers and all Americans will consider adding lobster-one of the nearly forgotten components of that first Pilgrim feast-back to their table.

Since Maine established its first commercial lobster fishery in the 1840's, the image of the lobster has been synonymous with our unique coastal culture and the resilience of the lobsterman have embodied the determined spirit of the Dirigo state. As Maine's lobstermen suffer some of the worst economic conditions in decades, I vow to explore every option to help industry members protect their livelihoods from the fallout of a problem beyond their control.

Senator Snowe is the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senator Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmospheres, Fisheries, and Coast Guard.

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