American lobster was almost unheard of in most of China until 2010, when the value of imports grew 250 percent to about $7.4 million. Last year, China imported more than $108 million in lobsters from America, surpassing the previous high of about $90.2 million in 2014.
"We've opened new markets in Asia, which is booming," said Dave Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "Everything is clicking now."
Chinese importers took in more than 14 million pounds of U.S. lobsters last year, which was also a record. The previous high was about 13.1 million pounds the previous year.
Interest in American lobster has grown in other countries in Asia as well, such as South Korea, which grew from less than $5 million in 2010 to nearly $28 million last year. Vietnam's imports grew from $142,940 to more than $31 million in that time.
One of the factors spurring the growth of lobsters in China appears to be the growth of the country's middle class, said Stephanie Nadeau, owner of The Lobster Company, in Arundel, Maine, which is a key player in the export business. American lobsters tend to be less expensive in China than other live seafood, such as spiny lobsters and geoduck clams, she said.
"It's kind of an affordable luxury," Nadeau said. "One of my customers said our lobsters are one of the cheapest things in the live tanks."
The uptick came in a record year for lobster catch in Maine, where most of America's lobster catch comes ashore. Fishermen caught more than 130 million pounds of lobster in Maine last year, an all-time record and more than double the 2007 total. Atlantic Canada also has a large lobster fishery and sends the same species of lobster to China.
"The Asian market is a key component," said Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Lobster sales to China do not appear to be slowing down in the new year. America exported more than 1.7 million pounds and $14 million in lobsters to the country in the first month of the year.