Lobsterman Greg Turner keeps a sandwich-board sign at the end of his driveway that advertises fresh lobster for sale from his garage, an attempt to claw for a few extra dollars by reaching buyers directly.
With prices stuck on low and expected to fall further this summer, he's skirting the traditional sales route by cutting out the dealers who usually sell lobster catches to retailers, restaurants, processors and other buyers.
Prices for lobster plunged last year to levels not seen in 20 years, leading Turner and a growing number of other lobstermen to sell from the backs of pickups, from garages, and even on Craigslist. By going directly to consumers, lobstermen say they can make roughly $1 more per pound than what they get from lobster dealers.
"No one wants to do it," said Turner, a longtime fisherman whose garage is a bare-bones retail operation with cold-water holding tanks, a scale and a cash register. "If the price hadn't gone into the toilet, I wouldn't have done this in the first place."
His wife tends shop when he's on his boat. He takes no charge cards and doesn't cook or ship lobsters. He said he's just a lobsterman trying to make ends meet.
"When I get to the point where I pay for fuel and bait, and my helper and I don't make any money at the end of the week, I have to do something," he said.
For the most part, lobstermen are selling lower than seafood shops and grocery stores.
In the past couple of weeks, lobstermen were selling one-pound lobsters for about $4.25 to $5.25 a pound, roughly $1 a pound more than they could get from lobster dealers. At the same time, Portland-area seafood shops and supermarkets were selling one-pounders for about $4.99 to $6.99 a pound.
Lobster dealers and retailers are taking notice — and they don't like what they see. Not only do the lobstermen's direct sales mean less for them, they say lobstermen are actually making matters worse for themselves.
In a letter to state fishery officials, a group of 13 dealers and retailers said the direct-sales trend is "counterproductive for harvesters, the resource and the state." They say retailers in particular are at a competitive disadvantage because of their overhead costs.
By selling lobster at rock-bottom prices, lobstermen are forcing retailers to mark down their prices, the letter says. To make up for the lower prices, lobster dealers will have to pay lobstermen less — thus driving down lobster prices even more.
"By selling their catch directly to consumers, harvesters may be temporarily getting a higher price for their own catch on that day, but they are really forcing down the boat price in their area," the letter states.
Lobster prices fluctuate widely throughout the year, sometimes daily, based on supply and demand. Lobstermen and dealers have symbiotic relationships that can sometimes get tense when prices fall.
Nobody was prepared for last year's free fall as demand for the state's signature seafood screeched to a halt amid the global recession. In Maine — which has 4,500 active lobstermen and accounts for 80% of the nation's catch of American lobster — the value of the harvest fell to about $235 million, down $50 million from 2007.
For the year, lobstermen averaged just under $3.50 a pound for their catch, down from $4.44 in 2007, with prices falling to under $2.50 a pound in some places last fall. The outlook isn't bright this year, either.