To hear Red Lobster tell it, big-scale commercial lobster farming is the wave of the future. Tell that to a Maine lobsterman, and you will get some salty answers.
Red Lobster’s Darden Restaurant chain says it may take years to develop, but farmed lobsters could become a cheap commodity, much like farmed shrimp and salmon, and revolutionize the way lobsters get to the dinner plate.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that the Orlando-based restaurant chain plans its lobster farms overseas, in Brunei and nearby Malaysia in the Far East and in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. The clawless spiny, or rock lobsters in those areas are easier candidates for farming than Maine lobsters, according to the newspaper, because they don’t attack one another and don’t take as long to mature.
But there are serious hurdles. The Sentinel says feeding the “voracious eaters” is a problem. And a fatal and contagious lobster disease, called PaV1, tends to spread in aquafarms.
Some Maine lobstermen scorn the farming plan, saying that it has been tried before and failed. If farming should be developed for the big-clawed North American lobster, they foresee outbreaks of shell disease, a huge expense to keep them from eating each other, and a growing environmental hazard. They fear that a lobster pen along this coast would harm the sea bottom by lining it with lobster excrement and uneaten food pellets. Others question how an expensive new venture could compete with the current low price of wild lobsters.
There is a lobster glut already, says an article in New York magazine. It tells of several new ventures selling lobster rolls made from Maine lobsters at $l4 or $15 as compared with the earlier going price of $27. Canadian processors, which normally buy more than half of the Maine catch, shut down temporarily in 2008 when the Icelandic banks that financed them failed. The result was a sudden oversupply of lobster meat, and the dock price dropped from $5 to $2.50.
Trevor Corson, who worked two years as a lobster boat sternman in Maine’s Cranberry Isles and wrote the popular book “The Secret Life of Lobsters,” told New York magazine: “It’s a perfect confluence of two things in a cultural moment. It’s the sudden affordability of lobster meat, and it’s this foodie trend of wanting to get back to artisanal food and its source.”
The magazine tells of several New York startup lobster roll venders including one co-owned by Susan Povich, a lawyer and granddaughter of the late Judge Shirley Povich of Ellsworth. She had visited Maine, found lobsters cheap, brought back 20 pounds, “and we felt we could bring them a luxury product at an affordable price.”
Lobster farming will have to go cheap to complete in such a buyer’s market.
Another thing about farming the crustaceans: Without normal exercise, they may be soft and squishy, the way some customers find some farmed fish.