ANALYSIS

When it comes to the lobster market, supply is the limit

A lobster sits in a tank at McLaughlin's Seafood in Bangor in this December 2012 file photo.
A lobster sits in a tank at McLaughlin's Seafood in Bangor in this December 2012 file photo.
Posted March 23, 2014, at 1:49 p.m.
Last modified March 24, 2014, at 9:31 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Got lobster?

Open up your fridge right now, and the answer most probably is “no.” According to many involved in Maine’s premiere fishery, that always will be the case for the vast majority of consumers — and that’s the way it should be.

Lobster will never be as ubiquitous as bacon or burgers, which is why industry officials say the tasty crustacean is expected to retain its reputation as a specialty or luxury food, even if it is starting to turn up in places that don’t have ocean views or white linen tablecloths.

Changes in the lobster market were featured this week in a Wall Street Journal article,“A Lobster in Every Pot,” which pointed out that lobster landings have been on the rise and prices have been decreasing. The article indicates that this is why lobster has started to appear on menus at Quiznos and Golden Corral and in frozen food sections of Whole Foods and Walmart.

But don’t expect anytime soon to hear commercial jingles that try to get moms to buy lobster tails instead of hot dogs for their kids. Lobster marketing officials in Maine intend to keep their sights set higher up the culinary food chain.

Last year, the state’s lobster marketing entity teamed up with the Champagne industry to place ads in several glossy magazines and on upmarket websites run by media outlets such as the New York Times, GQ, Vanity Fair and the Wall Street Journal. This year, it is launching a campaign with Culinary Institute of America to promote Maine lobster to high-end chefs.

“[Lobster] still commands a premium price and is often a feature item on the menu, even when served as a lobster roll,” Marianne LaCroix, acting director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said Thursday in an email.

Regardless of how lobster is marketed or sold, there is one big factor that forever will limit its availability: supply.

Lobster cannot be bred in captivity. Warmer ocean temperatures, decreased predation from cod and ample food (which many believe is courtesy of the poor retention rate of the baited traps lobstermen use) may have helped boost their numbers over the past 25 years, but industry officials readily acknowledge that steadily increasing catch rates cannot last indefinitely.

In fact, landings declined slightly last year in Maine, where far more lobster is caught than in any other state. The dip, from 127 million pounds in 2012 to slightly under 126 million pounds in 2013, may be a harbinger of things to come.

Despite the lower landings, the value of Maine’s lobster haul in 2013 hit a record value of $364 million, due in large part to an uptick in the average price fishermen are paid for their catch, from $2.69 per pound in 2012 to $2.89 last year — still far below the peak of $4.63 in 2005.

However the catch totals or dock prices may vary, the annual harvest figures reveal a key point, according to lobster industry officials. The volume of lobster that is caught each year is very small compared to the production of other main-course proteins.

In 2013, the United States produced 43.4 billion pounds of beef and 37.3 billion pounds of chicken meat. In 2011, pig farmers producers cultivated 21 billion pounds of pork. When it comes to seafood, Americans eat about one-third as much fish as pork, according to aboutseafood.com, and lobster is consistently left out of of the top 10 of aquatic species consumed.

So for every one pound of live Maine lobster brought ashore — only 20 to 25 percent of which is actually edible meat, according to LaCroix — American producers generate 341 pounds of beef, 294 pounds of chicken and 165 pounds of pork. From a volume standpoint, lobster is never going to compete with those meats.

Another key factor in the changing lobster market, aside from lower prices and landings that have rapidly increased since the late 1980s (by more than 500 percent in Maine), is the recent expansion of processing.

Jeff Nichols, who handles communications and marketing for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Friday that the number of licensed processors in the state has more than tripled in the past four years, from five in 2010 to 16 in 2013.

Processing is not going to affect the number of lobster in the sea, Nichols said, but the increased number of processors in Maine will help with two things: it will help protect the brand of “Maine” lobster, rather than having it processed and labeled out of state, and it will keep more of the industry’s vertical value in Maine.

“We currently send about 50 percent of our annual catch to Canada because we don’t have the processing capacity here in Maine,” Nichols said. “Processing won’t increase the availability of lobster in general, but it is important in terms of our ability to ensure that lobster harvested by Maine lobstermen is marketed as Maine lobster.”

From LaCroix’s perspective, broadening the range of retailers that sell lobster can help boost demand for it as a premium product.

“Products like [picked and packaged] lobster meat let a growing number of people experience sweet, tender new-shell Maine lobster,” LaCroix said. “Many food products are sold in different forms for different markets. Allowing more people to get a taste for Maine lobster is not a bad thing.”

 

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