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Product Spotlight: American lobster

Retailers reduce summer prices to drive consumer demand

 - Photo by Laura Lee Dobson
By April Forristall
October 01, 2008

News outlets were abuzz this summer with reports that while food prices skyrocketed, the cost of one of the season's favorite luxuries was dropping. Retail lobster prices were unusually low, causing speculation the lobster industry was in trouble.

Lobstermen assert the fishery is fine despite the low prices.

"We're off, but we're not off by a buck. So it's a little weaker than last year, but it's not off in any amount that you wonder what the heck is going on. There's always a lot of disconnect between what lobstermen get and what [live lobster] costs in stores," says Patrice McCarron, executive director for the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "[Retailers] are reducing prices to get foot traffic in."

McCarron says that while boat prices are a little bit lower than the past few years, the industry has seen - and survived - worse. This summer's boat prices were down about 50 cents compared to last summer, from $3.75 or $4 in 2007 to $3.50 or $3.85 in early September. But if prices go too much lower, it will be problematic for lobstermen, notes McCarron, because "the real thorn in our sides has been increased expenses."

On the buyer side, lower prices and a consistent supply has allowed chefs to be more creative with the crustacean.

At July's Maine Lobster Chef of the Year contest, participants agreed that chefs and consumers in New England are becoming more adventuresome with Maine lobster. Contest entries included Tempura of Maine Lobster Tail and Fondue of Local Foraged Mushrooms; Hot and Sour Lobster Tail; and Maine Lobster Salad with Ginger, Daikon, Bacon and a warm Ponzu Dressing.

SDLq There are definitely many new things that people are doing with lobster and different parts of the lobster ," says Michael Tourkistas, president of East Coast Seafood in Lynn, Mass. A consistent supply of lobster benefits chefs because it allows them to plan menus in advance, adds Tourkistas.

The lion's share of U.S. American lobster landings come from the Maine fishery. In 2007, it landed more than 63 million pounds valued at more than $280 million, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, down from 75 million pounds in 2006. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80 percent of the annual catch is from state waters, and offshore landings have never comprised more than 20 percent of total U.S. landings.

"The supply chain right now is pretty good," says John Petersdorf, VP and general manager of Port Clyde Lobster, which was recently purchased by Linda L. Bean, granddaughter and heir of the L.L. Bean retail chain in Freeport, Maine. "Catches on average are 1 and 2 pounds per trap and it's no better than last year at this time, but no worse."

However, while supply is stable and expected to remain so for the rest of the year, the low prices are a reflection of only fair demand.

Recently, more and more harvesters and distributors are taking initiatives to make sure that demand stays sound.

"The world marketplace is demanding or looking for sustainability and is highly interested in traceability," says Linda Bean, whose Port Clyde and Vinalhaven, Maine, wharfs in mid-September began tagging lobsters with claw bracelets identifying their Maine origin, as well as rolling out a new line of lobster rolls to be sold at Bean's eponymous lobster shacks in Freeport and Rockland, Maine.

East Coast Seafood is looking to ensure a steady future supply by raising juvenile lobsters in the Bay of Fundy, located between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada and, along with partner Paturel International Co. will release them into the wild, mainly in New Brunswick and Deer Isle, Maine.

Perhaps the biggest initiative was taken in March, when the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery began the process of obtaining Marine Stewardship Council certification. Maine Gov. John Baldacci appointed a task force consisting of Bean, John Hathaway, president of Shuck's Maine Lobster, and Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe to head the process.

The fishery is often cited as a model of sustainability. Trap limits and carapace size rules prevent harvests of lobsters too big or too small. Egg-bearing females are also returned to the water. Having the right to bear the MSC eco-label would allow the fishery to better promote its harvest practices.

"Pricing is always an issue. We feel having a certified sustainable product will open markets and create more value for the product, particularly for the fishermen who are taking the effort to make it sustainable," says Hathaway, task force chairman.

"Consumers are voting with their wallets as to what products they want to buy and they are telling the marketplace they want to support sustainability and they want to know where their products come from."

In September, the task force announced the fishery passed the preliminary stage of MSC assessment with no red flags, and after a public meeting and discussion in late September will decide whether to proceed with full certification, which may take up to a year.

"People on the committee are very positive about the results, but there are a lot of issues we have to discuss. [MSC certification] would be great for Maine lobster. It will help us re-establish the Maine brand as the premium in the world of lobster," says Hathaway. "By taking these actions we are just reinforcing the fact of what the lobstermen already do."

Lobster is one of consumers' favorite seafood indulgences. And with sustainability on the rise, and new products in development, it is sure to remain a meal that people celebrate with.


Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com

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