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With lobster catch dropping off, prices inch up

FILE - In this Monday, May 21, 2012 file photo, sternman Scott Beede, returns an undersized lobster while checking traps in Mount Desert, Maine. The state's lobster catch has started dropping off and prices at the dock have been inching up slowly just as the state's summer tourist season comes to a close. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine's lobster catch has started dropping off and prices at the dock have been inching up slowly just as the state's summer tourist season comes to a close.

Fishermen have been hauling fewer lobsters the past few weeks after several months of going gangbusters.

The lull in the harvest is coming about a month earlier than usual. But that's not too surprising given that the lobster catch started coming on strong a month earlier than normal, said Carl Wilson, lobster biologist for the Department of Marine Resources.

"If June was the new July and July was the new August, that would mean that August is the new September," Wilson said. "And we generally have kind of a slowdown in September."

With ocean waters warmer than usual, Maine's lobster catch came on strong in May, resulting in a glut on the market and driving down prices to levels of 20 years ago.

Many fishermen, especially in eastern Maine, reported traps loaded with lobsters like they had never seen before. Fishermen for the most part are now relieved to see catches return to closer-to-normal levels, said Sheila Dassatt of Belfast, who heads the Downeast Lobstermen's Association and fishes with her husband out of Belfast.

"It's leveling off the supply," Dassatt said. "We had so many lobsters. They're calling it an anomaly."

One reason the catch is slowing down is because there are fewer legal-sized lobsters on the ocean bottom after months of intensive fishing, Wilson said.

Various reports show that prices paid to the fishermen have edged up in the past couple of weeks, but only by 10 to 20 cents a pound. Restaurants and retail stores are still offering deals, with many places still selling small, soft-shell lobsters for under $4 a pound.

The live-lobster market won't disappear with tourist season coming to an end, said Peter McAleney, owner of New Meadows Lobster in Portland. Maine has plenty of visitors who come for the change of seasons, he said. In fact, tourism officials say Labor Day to Columbus Day weekend is the busiest time of the year for many restaurants and hotels.

Tourists in the fall tend to be older than those in the summer. Hundreds of tour buses visit for the fall foliage, and dozens of large cruise ships carrying tens of thousands of passengers make port calls in Portland and Bar Harbor in September and October.

"There are more and more tourists coming in the fall than there used to be," McAleney said. "They're older and they buy a lot of lobsters."

Even with the lobster catch taking a bit of a breather, this year's harvest could still go down in the record books. Lobstermen last year caught nearly 105 million pounds, the first time the state's catch has topped 100 million pounds.

"I think it's on pace to meet or exceed what we had last year," Wilson said.