PORTLAND, Maine — As popular as Maine lobster is, fans of the delicacy might be surprised at how limited their options are. That’s going to change come July 1.
Tens of millions of pounds of Maine-caught lobster are shipped each year to Canada, where they are turned into value-added products that can be processed there — but not in Maine. A new law taking effect this summer aims to even out the playing field for processors and marketers.
“This will allow Maine processors to add value to lobster products, produce what the market expects and be more competitive in national and international markets,” said Emily Lane, a sales and marketing representative at Portland Shellfish Co. Inc.
Maine is the No. 1 lobster-producing state, with last year’s catch totaling a record 75.6 million pounds.
The only lobster products that can now be sold in Maine are whole lobsters, whole lobster tails that are intact and in the shell, and lobster meat that’s been picked out of the shell, said David Etnier, deputy commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources.
The current law forbidding companies from processing a wide variety of lobster products was passed years ago because of concerns that people might sell claws and tails from lobsters smaller than the legal minimum size.
A large portion of the Maine harvest — by some accounts, as much as 80 percent — is sent to Canada, where much of it is processed under the Canadian label into various tail, claw and meat products.
The regulatory details of the new law are still being worked out, but they should allow Maine companies to sell a number of new value-added items that they now can’t produce, including whole claws and knuckles in the shell and split tail products, he said.
And officials say they’re confident the new law contains adequate provisions regulating lobster size.
It’s unclear how much of a boost the law could give the lobster industry. At the least, it will allow Maine businesses to market an expanded assortment of lobster products to better compete with Canadian companies, Etnier said.
It’s important to offer new products to reach more consumers, said John Hathaway, who owns Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond. He thinks claw products — such as an appetizer known as the cocktail lobster claw — will do particularly well.
“We’re not selling an animal,” Hathaway said. “We’re selling food, and it’s a high-end food, and we have to present it to people so it has high value and is convenient so it’s easy to prepare.”