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Lobster industry fears another ocean warm up

PORTLAND, Maine — Ocean temperatures have been higher than normal in the Gulf of Maine, creating fears among lobstermen that there could be a repeat of last spring’s early harvest that resulted in a market glut, a crash in the prices fishermen get, and a blockade of Maine-caught lobsters in Canada.

Temperature readings at selected ocean buoys off the Maine coast have been lower than last winter, but they’ve still been above normal the past few months. Some fishermen are already finding some soft-shell lobsters in traps, months earlier than usual.

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Fishermen do not want to see a recurrence of last year, when the strong early catch caused prices to plummet and tensions to boil over when Canadian lobstermen, angered by the low prices, blocked truckloads of Maine’s catch from being delivered to processing plants in Canada.

‘‘I guess we’re kind of just holding our breath,’’ said Bruce Fernald, a longtime lobsterman from Cranberry Isles .

Fishermen were scratching their heads last year when lobsters began showing up in traps in large numbers four to six weeks earlier than usual. Maine’s lobster catch, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the total US harvest, typically begins picking up in late June or early July as the bottom-dwelling crustaceans start getting active while shedding their hard shells in favor of new soft shells.

Last year’s early flood of lobsters, combined with a strong Canadian spring catch, drove down prices and created a mess for lobstermen and dealers with supply far exceeding demand. For the year, fishermen hauled in a record 126 million pounds of product. But they received only $2.69 a pound on average, the lowest price since 1994.

A lobster’s growth and activity ramp up when water warms, said Rick Wahle, of the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences at the Darling Marine Center in Bristol. Water temperatures in February for the most part were at levels normally not reached until late May or early June. They have since cooled a bit, but early April temperatures were still at levels usually not reached for three to five more weeks.

‘‘We aren’t likely to see as an extreme of an event as last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an earlier-than-normal shed,’’ Wahle said. ‘‘A lot will depend on how the next few weeks play out.’’

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