« October 2008 Table of Contents
Product Spotlight: American lobster
Retailers reduce summer prices to drive consumer demand
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
Lobstermen assert the fishery is fine despite the low
"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
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
"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
"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
Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at