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How a national craze caused lobster prices to boil over

Your next fresh lobster dinner, drizzled in butter and lemon, might crack your budget.

Restaurants are having to fork over more money this year to get their hands on prized Maine lobsters, and that means your dinner bill could soar to $60 a plate. Blame robust demand.

The coast-to-coast craze of lobster roll food trucks has made lobster more affordable, and abroad the appetite for the crustaceans is growing as well, experts say.

"The demand for this product now is really unprecedented," said Annie Tselikis, marketing director for Maine Coast Co., a live lobster wholesaler based in York, Maine. She spoke Monday just before boarding a flight for a seafood trade show in South Korea, a major customer of North American lobsters along with China and others.

"Lobster demand usually follows the stock market and general economy." -Bob Bayer, director, Lobster Institute, University of Maine

Live lobster prices on a wholesale basis reached $8.50 for a 1.25-pound hard-shell lobster in August, the highest level in a decade, according to Urner Barry, a leading seafood price tracker and a partner in Seafood News.

You'd have to go back to 2008 for the last time lobsters were even above $5 for this time of year, said John Sackton, editor and publisher of Seafood News. Since that time they've fluctuated between $3.90 and $4.85 until this year when they're up again over $7.

"Lobster demand usually follows the stock market and general economy," said Bob Bayer, director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. "When the economy is good, lobster demand is good."


Highest prices since 2005

Wholesale lobster prices tend to claw their way higher in the U.S. in the March-April period just before the warmer weather and when lobster-fishing season starts in Maine. Then in summer, prices tend to cool and again in the fall once the hustle and bustle of the New England tourist season winds down.

However, this year the summer decrease "didn't really happen," said Sackton. And he said prices in the August-September period until now have remained generally elevated.

"The last time it was at this level was in 2005," said Sackton. "These are for this time of year the highest prices for these live lobsters."

Cousins Maine Lobster food truck in Coachella, California
Source: Cousins Maine Lobster
Cousins Maine Lobster food truck in Coachella, California

According to Sackton, one of the chief reasons prices are so high in August, September and October is "because the processors are buying lobster for customers such as lobster roll trucks, competing with the live lobster buyers. And that's pushed up the price for lobster overall."

As a result, fresh lobster meals at some well-known Boston seafood restaurants are going nearly $60 for the 2- or 2.5-pound lobster and about $44 for the 1.25-pound. In Maine, lobster dinners at fine dining locations can set you back around $50, and in New York City and California you're looking at upward of $70.

Lobster also has been making inroads into more affordable markets, too. For example, lobster roll trucks have been a craze expanding to many of the largest U.S. cities. The lobster roll purveyors buy the crustacean's meat from processors, a growing business in Maine where about 80 percent of the nation's lobster harvest takes place.


Chef prepares lobster roll in Cousins Maine Lobster food truck.
Source: Cousins Maine Lobster
Chef prepares lobster roll in Cousins Maine Lobster food truck.

One of the largest fleets of lobster roll trucks is Cousins Maine Lobster, a "Shark Tank"–featured company started by two cousins from Maine — Sabin Lomac and Jim Tselikis (brother of Maine Coast's Annie Tselikis).

"Demand is very high and the supply is trying to catch up to it," said Jim Tselikis. "So prices have increased for that reason."

Cousins now has 21 owned or franchised food trucks nationwide and plans to add more trucks next year, and that's in addition to the brick-and-mortar lobster restaurant it has in the Los Angeles market.

"We've tried to withstand the price increases to the best of our ability." -Jim Tselikis, co-owner of Cousins Maine Lobster

Lobster meat used by lobster trucks is now running around $30 a pound, according to Sackton. He said these price levels "have never been seen before," adding that the lobster meat is normally priced in the "$16-$18 range."

"We've tried to withstand the price increases to the best of our ability," said Cousins co-owner Tselikis. He said Cousins passed along some of the higher costs with increased prices for the lobster roll but not all of it because "we didn't want to rock the boat so much where we lose customers because we jacked the price."

Another reason prices may have remained high this year is fish bait costs such as herring for Maine lobstermen were double in some cases.

"It's still a bit early to know how much of an impact bait prices have had on lobstermen's bottom line," said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "It is certainly a significant daily operating expense, so it will have an impact."

The harvest season will continue through November and into early December, although some Maine lobstermen will fish through the cold winter.

"All in all, it seems like it's shaping up to be another really good year for the Maine lobster industry," said McCarron.

Last year, Maine's lobster harvest approached around $500 million in value statewide and it marked the fourth year in a row when the state landings reached over 120 million pounds, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Official figures for the 2016 harvest won't be released until early 2017.

The continued strong harvest comes as the export market remains vibrant for North American lobsters. Overall, U.S. lobster exports have soared in recent years and year-to-date through August are running up 16 percent in dollar terms compared with a year ago, according to the latest export data from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In particular, China is a standout in terms of the Maine industry's growth. The dollar value of U.S. lobster exports to China has soared 280 percent since 2011 and this year is on pace to produce healthy double-digit growth.

"China has become a huge, huge player in the live lobster market," said Sackton. "Lots of people are exporting them and a lot of Chinese buyers are showing up on the docks and competing."

Growth for North American lobster isn't just coming from China, Hong Kong and South Korea but from other Asian markets including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, according to Maine Coast's marketing exec. She said this year the company has already beaten last year's annual sales to the Asia market.

Indeed, North America's lobster industry has made major inroads into the Asia market, which was previously dominated by sellers from Australia and New Zealand. With advances in shipping, the North American lobster companies have been able to be price competitive in the Asia market.