Lobster price claws its way to new high

This story was published on April 11, 2007 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Since the early part of the 20th century, lobster has had a reputation as a luxury food, a culinary experience suited for the upper crust of society, especially for those who live away from the New England coast.

Now, its reputation as an expensive meal is achieving an even more rarefied high. Thanks to a shortage of the captured crustaceans, the retail price of lobster has climbed from under $10 to around $15 per pound for live lobster.

“It’s crazy,” Reid McLaughlin, owner of McLaughlin Seafood in Bangor, said Tuesday. “That’s the highest price I’ve ever sold lobster for in 30 years of business.”

Fresh lobster meat, cooked and picked from the shell, is going for $60 per pound, he said. Restaurants in Boston are charging between $30 for lobsters weighing 11/2 pounds and around $100 for lobsters in the 3-pound range.

Maine is the largest supplier of lobster in the nation, with 66 million pounds worth $272 million caught in 2006.

Steve Robbins, manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-op, said Tuesday that fishermen are getting around $10.50 per pound for the live lobsters they catch. For the past several years, this boat price has wavered seasonally between $4 and $5 per pound.

“To my knowledge, it’s a historic high,” Robbins said. “The price is not such an inhibitor for [retail customers]. It does have a big effect on small businesses.”

Lobster industry officials say there are many reasons for the price jump.

Bob Bayer of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine said this past winter’s weather, especially the wind, made it tough for lobstermen to get out on the water. At the same time, the colder ocean water made lobsters less hungry and thus less likely to head in to a trap in search of food.

“It’s [been] a cold month,” Robbins said. “The air temperature alone is 10 or 12 degrees below what it normally is.”

Robbins said the ocean temperature usually climbs into the 40s before lobstering activity starts building up, both for lobsters and the fishermen.

Bayer also pointed to reduced stocks in tidal lobster pounds, which contain lobsters caught in the fall for sale over the winter. The pounds have done poorly in recent years, prompting dealers to keep fewer lobsters in them, he said.

McLaughlin attributed part of the price hike to favorable exchange rates for Canada and Europe. As much as 60 percent of processed Maine lobster is shipped to Canada and demand for Maine lobster in Europe has been building over recent years while the Euro’s buying power has increased, he said.

“People in Europe are buying lobster for half-price” compared to what they’re used to paying, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin’s American customers, however, aren’t biting on the price.

“Most often they walk out,” he said. “They’ll come back once the water starts warming up.”

Robbins said the co-op’s few retail customers, who tend to buy lobster for special occasions such as for Easter, have not been put off by the higher prices. The co-op’s wholesale buyers, however, find it tough to absorb the cost or pass it along to their customers.

“Now you’re looking at a $12 or $13 or $14 lobster roll,” Robbins said. “Very few people can pay that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

A1 for Wednesday, April 11, 2007

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