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Mass. Lobstermen Can't Catch A Break This Summer06:03
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Three hundred and 50 pounds of lobster are being sorted on the Privateer, a lobster boat just in to Boston Harbor after a day of fishing that started at 5 a.m.

The skipper of the Privateer is Paul Pender. "Finally, after years of conservation, we're having a really good catch — then it's kind of negated by the fact that the price went into the toilet," Pender says, sorting through lobsters on the boat with his two sons, one in high school and one in college.

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Lobstermen say the fishing right now is good. The lobster catch in Massachusetts this year is expected to total 12 million pounds. But business is not good. Many lobstermen say they're financially stressed because they're only getting around $3 per pound for lobsters, compared to $4.50 per pound a year ago and $5 per pound in 2007.

"So we're working harder for less money," Pender explains. "It costs me $600 to untie the boat every morning."

And that's just for the basic expenses to go fishing for a day. "It's not the insurance, it's not the dockets," he says. "At the end of the year, when I figure out my catch for the year and my expenses for the year, I'm making 30, 40 cents on a lobster. That ain't gonna work."

The Privateer and the other lobster boats lined up at Medeiros Dock aren't cheap to operate. They require significant maintenance, they need fuel and oil. There's insurance to pay, and the banks. A lobsterman needs traps and he needs bait — a lot of it.

Still, Pender has a smile on his face as he explains all this.

"What are you going to do?" he asks. "I mean, you got a hundred-and-something-thousand dollars invested in this stuff. You go fishing every day and some days you win, some days you lose, I guess."

So how much does a lobsterman need to get per pound in order to make a profit?

"The bottom is $4," says Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. "If they're somewhere between — at this time of the year — $4 and $5, they can make ends meet. But they need that much."

"Down for the actual fisherman, but up for retailers and customers"

It's a different story on the wholesale and retail end of the lobster business. From their store on the Boston waterfront, James Hook & Co. sells to the hungry public and to fellow lobster dealers.

"The business is good — it's very good," says sales manager John Mulkerrin, standing in front of the store's pools of bubbling water, chock full of lobsters ranging from one to more than four pounds, their claws tightly bound with rubber bands.

James Hook is currently selling new-shell lobsters for $4.99, while the typically more expensive hard-shell lobsters are on sale for $7.99 per pound  — "which is very cheap," Mulkerrin says. "We're paying lower so our prices are lower, so it's actually busier for us."

That's the tradeoff, Mulkerrin acknowledges: "Down for the actual fishermen, but up for retailers and customers." As a buyer, Mulkerrin says he's not spending too much time worrying about how long or whether lobstermen will be able to get by on the prices they're getting. "We're more worried about trying to keep us going right now," he says.

"I'm going to be a lawyer or something"

But Bill Adler of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association is worried about lobstermen and concerned about the future.

"There's about 900 active, commercial, inshore lobstermen in Massachusetts," Adler says. "It's down from much higher figures, it's been dwindling down little by little."

Adler worries that number will be even lower next year if prices stay where they are through the rest of the summer and into the fall and winter.

"Another problem we have is we don't have a lot of new people coming in," Adler adds. "The younger generation's going, 'I'm not going to do that, I'm going to be a lawyer or something.'"

The lobstermen are also not helped by the restaurant economy. Even though lobsters are a good buy — one restaurant on the Boston waterfront was selling a full lobster dinner for just $10 recently — sales are down. According to one local lobster distributor, restaurant demand for lobster is down 30 to 35 percent in the recession.

WBUR's Lisa Tobin contributed to this report.

This program aired on August 11, 2009.

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