By Clarke Canfield
PORTLAND, Maine - It’ s peak season for lobster and tourism in Maine, yet consumption of this crustacean has fallen to the point where it costs no more than sliced turkey in parts of New England.
A solid harvest and diminished demand from diners adjusting to the weak economy have pushed the retail price of lobster in Maine beneath $6 a pound, tightening the financial squeeze on fishermen struggling with soaring fuel prices.
While fewer locals and tourists overall are shelling out for lobster dinners, some say the affordability — at a time when most food prices are rising — has encouraged them to eat more of the seafood delicacy than usual.
Katina Wetter, who spent more than $100 on gas to drive from Indiana to Portland, Maine, with her family, is counting her pennies while on vacation — but said she definitely won’ t skimp on the state’ s signature seafood. “I’ d be buying lobsters anyway, but not as many if the prices weren’ t this low,” Wetter said.
Lobster lovers outside of New England won’ t notice any change in price, analysts said, since Maine’ s summertime catch is mostly soft-shelled and too fragile to ship long distances.
Maine is the nation’ s lobster breadbasket with fishermen last year hauling in 63 million pounds, about 80 percent of the U.S. catch, worth $280 million.
Lobster prices are volatile throughout the year with the highest prices in winter and spring. They typically decline in summer, when fishermen begin catching lobsters in abundance in the cold waters off Maine’ s rocky coast.
This summer, retailers agree that prices have fallen more than usual with them now about $1 a pound cheaper than last year. A healthy catch has resulted in ample supply, but the main reason behind the price drop is soft demand — presumably because fewer families are taking summer vacations to Maine and those that are must pay $4 a gallon to get there.
Traffic on the Maine Turnpike — the main highway for tourists heading into Maine from the Eastern Seaboard — fell by more than 2 percent in June, compared with last year, according to the Maine Turnpike Authority.
The going retail price for a small, soft-shell variety of this seafood delicacy is around $5.99 a pound. Larger lobsters and those with hard shells — which have more meat than soft-shells — cost more.
At those prices, lobster costs the same amount as turkey — and less than honey ham — at the deli counter at Hannaford supermarkets, which sells lobster at more than 20 coastal Maine stores.
“It’ s closing in on hamburger,” said Neal Workman, founder and head of The Fisheries Exchange, a Boston-based company that tracks prices, catches and other market information for the lobster industry.
Retailers who rely heavily on summer tourists are promoting their low prices to drum up business.
“I think everybody in the retail business knows if it comes down to gas or lobster, people are definitely going to buy gas,” said Stuart Norton, owner of Three Sons Lobster & Fish, a store on Portland’ s waterfront. “Lobster won’ t take you to work.”
Seaview Lobster Co. in Kittery and Sanders Lobster Co. in neighboring Portsmouth, N.H., went so far as to cut prices to $4.99 a pound in an effort to get shoppers thinking lobster.
Chris Green, who lives outside of Portland, said he would always buy lobsters for special occasions — no matter the cost. At Portland Lobster Pound & Fish Market, he bought 10 lobsters and six pounds of soft-shell clams for a recent feast with friends.
“Even if prices had been high, it wouldn’ t have [made] any difference,” he said.
Deals also can be had at restaurants.
At Verillo’ s in Portland, for instance, you can get a lobster dinner with clam chowder, mussels, cole slaw, french fries, rolls and strawberry shortcake for $14.99 — which is priced lower than last summer.
But what’ s good for consumers is another financial trap for lobstermen.
With diesel fuel selling for close to $5 a gallon and bait prices 25 percent higher than a year ago, lobstermen already have a tough time. In Boothbay Harbor, longtime lobsterman Clive Ferrin is trying to make ends meet by charging tourists — $25 for adults, $15 for children — to come out on his 32-foot boat while he’ s pulling traps.
Ferrin’ s not surprised that lobster prices are down. He’ s noticed fewer tourists in town this summer and suspects that those who are coming are less prone to order lobster dinners when eating out. Locals, he added, are fearful of how much they’ re going to have to spend on heating oil to keep their homes warm next winter.
“It wouldn’ t do us any good to catch more lobster because if we do, it’ ll drive down the prices even more,” Ferrin said.
That’ s exactly what could well happen in the weeks ahead now that lobster catches are coming on strong along Maine’ s 3,500-mile coastline.
The “boat price” paid to fishermen is down 75 cents a pound or more from a year ago.
“It hasn’ t been good for the lobster industry, and it may get worse,” Workman of the Fisheries Exchange said. “But if there’ s a silver lining, it’ s that if the cost of lobster goes down” that should eventually turn demand — and prices — around.
For now, seafood sales at Roger Reed’ s waterfront store, Portland Lobster Pound & Fish Market, are down more than 30 percent this year.
“People have to save money for more important things,” Reed said.