A huge and potentially record-breaking haul of crustaceans in Maine and Canada this year has caused a market glut and a crash in wholesale prices. Fearing for their livelihood, Canadian fishermen in the past few days have angrily blocked truckloads of Maine lobsters from being delivered to processing plants in Canada that turn out lobster products for U.S. supermarkets and restaurants.
Unless something is done to prop up the price of lobster, "we'll go down the hole," warned Eugene Robichaud, a fisherman in Richibucto, New Brunswick.
The blockades have brought Canada's lobster-processing industry to a near-standstill, put thousands of employees out of work, sent shockwaves through Maine's lobster industry and led to calls for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to intervene.
Portland lobsterman Greg Griffin said he has been getting a paltry $2.35 a pound for his catch, a dollar less than a year ago, and he fears the blockade could drag prices down even more.
"At what point is going out and bringing in lobster no longer viable?" he asked.
The dispute isn't expected to have any immediate effect on lobster prices in the United States. National restaurant chains such as Red Lobster that buy processed lobster typically make their purchases and determine their menu prices far in advance.
But the troubles shine a light on the workings of the lobster business in North America's cold northern waters, and the way Maine's industry and Canada's depend on each other.
While much of the catch from both countries is sold live, a big share is canned, turned into frozen lobster tails or otherwise packaged. An estimated 35 to 50 percent of Maine's annual catch is shipped to Canadian processors. Canada has more than two dozen lobster processors, about half of them in New Brunswick. Maine has only three plants of any size, and they handle only a fraction of what is processed in Canada.
In recent years, the lobster industry has been suffering from too much of a good thing: The combined harvest for the two countries jumped from about 150 million pounds in 1992 to more than 257 million pounds by 2010, the latest year for which complete statistics are available. By all accounts, the 2011 haul was even larger - Maine's catch alone topped 104 million pounds - and this year's could set a record.
Because of so much lobster on the market, fishermen have been getting barely enough to cover fuel, bait, boat payments and other expenses.
"If the price is too low, I'm going to have to pay to go fish," said lobsterman Maurice Martin of Richibucto.
Last week, hundreds of Canadian lobstermen stormed several processing plants in New Brunswick and surrounded trucks making deliveries from Maine. Blaming Maine for the low prices, they demanded that processors stop accepting Maine lobsters.
The protests spilled over to Prince Edward Island and to other plants in New Brunswick, and by Wednesday every processor in New Brunswick had shut down operations, said New Brunswick Fisheries Minister Michael Olscamp.
On Thursday, a New Brunswick judge granted a 10-day injunction barring lobstermen from blocking the plants across the province.
During the blockades, lobstermen held up "No More U.S. Lobster" signs and threw Maine lobster to the ground, calling it "garbage." About 100 lobstermen also went to the federal fishery minister's office in Fredericton, hurling large metal lobster traps into the reception area.
While processors have agreed to pay a minimum of $2.50 to $3 a pound for their catch, the Canadian lobstermen are demanding $4.
Olscamp said he told the lobstermen that prices are set by the free market, not by the government. And he warned that they could end up "cutting their own throats" by shutting down the processors.
"I've tried to explain to them they're going to be the architects of their own demise and it won't be just them, it'll be the processing plants," the fisheries minister said. "Whether that fell on deaf ears, I don't know."
New Brunswick Premier David Alward said his province and Maine have a great history of trade but the protests have become a major irritant.
"It's very unfortunate and unacceptable what these fishermen have done," Alward said in a telephone interview. "I hope to and expect to see a more reasonable flow of lobster moving forward in the coming days."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, wrote a letter Wednesday urging Clinton to investigate and raise the issue with the Canadian minister of foreign affairs. A Clinton spokeswoman said that she was not aware of the letter and that the secretary of state was traveling.