ELLSWORTH — Wondering why lobster is $11.99 a pound or more at the supermarket? The answer may be the cold, and the heat.
After a winter that wouldn’t, or hasn’t, let go, the supply of lobsters is tight. As of early this week, the boat price for the few lobsters crossing the docks was in the range of $8.50 to $9 per pound, including bonuses that may not be paid until later in the year.
Cold and stormy weather through the first few months of the year has kept most lobstermen on the bank with only a handful out hauling gear offshore where the lobsters move when the water turns cold.
And it did. As of Tuesday, the water temperature at the Eastern Maine Shelf buoy, a few miles off Mount Desert Island, was still just 38 degrees. Not long ago, Beal’s Lobster Pier’s Rob Bauer said the temperature at the buoy was a frigid 36 degrees, the first time it had been that low in years.
“Everybody is saying there’ll be no shedders until August,” Bauer said grimly.
If the cold water is slowing the lobsters’ move from deep water winter hidey holes into the few traps that are set, the demand for live lobsters in Asia is keeping the heat on dealers.
“The guys with tank houses shipping to Asia are definitely having an impact,” Bauer said. “It puts an interesting spin on demand.”
In every marketplace, the price of lobsters seems to be sky high. One Maine dealer that ships lobsters widely lists chix (just over 1 pound) to pound-and-a-half lobsters for $13.50 per pound on his website. Selects and jumbos, anything larger than about 1.8 pounds, go for $15.50.
Shipping is extra.
The growth of the Asian market for Maine lobster is reflected in the number of dealers who specialize in shipping live product to the region. The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative website lists more than three dozen dealers who export lobster to Asia. There is also a dedicated Chinese language section on the site.
High lobster prices mean more than just expensive July Fourth picnics. If the price of lobster stays up, Bauer said, “processors can’t work. Nobody wants $45 a pound lobster meat.”
There is some expectation, though, that lobster prices could start dropping.
The eastern Nova Scotia and Newfoundland lobster seasons either just opened or will open within a few days. Landings from those areas could drive down the price Canadian shippers and processors are willing to pay and that could affect the price in Maine.
Bauer thinks the lobster market may be in for a sea change.
“All fish is expensive, north of $10” (per pound) in seafood markets in Portland and Boston,” he said. “That usually puts a damper on demand, but Asian customers seem to be adjusting to the price.”