ELLSWORTH, Maine — The demand for lobster is on a roll — often literally. And that is helping to keep the price that Maine lobstermen are getting for their catch near historic highs.
The annual per-pound price first rose above $4 in 2004 and stayed there through 2007, then fell sharply during the recession. In 2015, annual price paid to Maine lobstermen reached $4.09 a pound, the first time it had topped the $4 mark since 2007.
This year, dockside prices for lobster have been close to or above the $4 level throughout the summer and fall, when most lobster is caught and prices usually dip to reflect the ample supply.
The demand for lobster has been buoyed, in part, by the number of casual restaurants that now include it on their menus and by the growing popularity of lobster rolls sold from roadside food trucks, according lobster industry officials.
“No question, more people are offering lobster up and down the [restaurant] hierarchy,” Matt Jacobson, head of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said. “More awareness and more vendors is great, and drives demand.”
Among the eateries boosting demand for lobster rolls are the Luke’s Lobster chain of restaurants, franchised food trucks, such as Cousins Maine Lobster, and even McDonald’s, which has served lobster rolls at its New England locations the past two summers.
Isle au Haut lobsterman Payson Barter said that he has been getting prices this fall that are “about the same” as those in 2015. He sells his catch to Little Bay Lobster in Stonington for $4 to $5 per pound.
He said the relatively warm water this fall has helped increase the number of lobsters close to shore but that the crustaceans are now making their seasonal migration farther out to sea. He said he is winding down for the winter because he does not have a federal permit to set traps outside the 3-mile line.
“There have been good hauls pretty late in the shallow water,” Barter said, standing near his boat Perseverance as it was tied up to the public landing on Stonington’s waterfront. “I’m about done. I’m starting to take my traps in now.”
The appetite for Maine lobsters continues to increase in Asia, especially China, and in Europe, where seafood often plays a prominent role during end-of-the-year holiday feasts. Strong demand in both regions is another factor keeping prices relatively high, officials said.
Jim Dow of Bar Harbor, vice president of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said that, despite the mild weather last winter and warmer-than-usual water in the Gulf of Maine this past spring, there was not a repeat of the glut of new-shell lobster that in 2012 sent prices plummeting to their lowest point in decades.
“We did not get a big burst when the shedders first started” in early summer, Dow said. “They came in, but it was short-lived.”
Dow, who fishes out of Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, said that while fisherman in that area have been getting around $4 to $4.50 per pound this fall, the price of bait has been much higher than last year. This year he is paying $45 to $50 per bushel of herring, compared with $25 a year ago.
“Our bait price doubled,” Dow said, adding that fuel prices have stayed relatively low.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said recently that the increase in bait costs could mean that many lobsterman earn less money this year even if their gross revenues rise.
Expenses aside, the past couple years have marked a return of sorts to stability and predictability for Maine’s lobster industry, which is by far the biggest fishery in Maine and the biggest lobster fishery in the country. Maine’s 5,000 or so commercial lobstermen had gross revenues of nearly half a billion dollars in 2015, a record high.
This stability is in contrast to 2012 and 2013, when high springtime ocean temperatures led to abnormally large springtime lobster catches and forced prices down to historically low levels. Many fishermen said at the time that, with dockside prices dipping toward $2 per pound, they could not catch enough lobster even to recoup their costs of gearing up and heading out to fish.
The fishery faced a crisis in those years. Several Maine fishermen called for a work stoppage until the price went back up. That outcry prompted stern warnings from regulators about not violating antitrust laws. Industry meetings were held, task forces were formed and new methods were sought for boosting demand.
One of the resulting initiatives was creation of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, which replaced the former Maine Lobster Promotion Council with a new organizational structure and funding formula that increased its annual budget from $350,000 to $2.25 million.
Jacobson, hired in mid-2014 as the collaborative’s first executive director, said last week that one of the group’s primary marketing strategies has been to promote Maine lobster to top chefs. Key to that effort, he said, has been emphasizing the role of individual lobstermen as independent operators, the low impact fishermen have on the ocean, and the wide variety of ways lobster can be prepared.
Jacobson said that as renown chefs have become more enthusiastic and versatile with lobster, it has helped popularize lobster rolls at more casual dining establishments across the country. .
McCarron said Maine’s lobster industry been pleased by the collaborative’s approach.
“My sense is they’ve been very strategic and very smart,” McCarron said. “I’ve been really impressed. They don’t have a ton of money.”