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The Lobster Pinch

Greg Spears

WE BUY LOBSTERS from the backdoor of a fisherman who we know here in Maine. On Tuesday, my wife texted him to say she’d left $35 in cash for the four lobsters he’d set aside for us in a cooler. He texted back to say $25 was more than enough.

In a year of spiking inflation, I have a morsel of good news. The wholesale price of lobster has crashed since March, down 45% according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Lobstermen might get $4 or less a pound for lobsters delivered to the dock, about half what they earned last year. My fisherman neighbor said he’d received $3.60 a pound this summer.

The price drop has left the bay quiet, as lobstermen make fewer trips to haul traps. The catch price might not cover their costs—diesel fuel plus bait. The latter is a fish that’s known locally as pogies.

Lobster prices are down partly because fine dining is still off. Expense account restaurants must be doing less business with so many workers at home. In China—traditionally a big market for Maine lobsters—the economy is spluttering as whole cities get locked down to combat the spread of COVID. A white truck that used to rumble through town every afternoon to pick up lobsters for the city has rarely appeared this summer.

A second reason for the crash in lobster prices is environmental concerns. Seafood Watch recently “red-listed” Maine lobster, saying the lines suspended between the colorful buoys on the surface and the traps on the sea floor are a danger to the few right whales left in the world. Big buyers like Cheesecake Factory, Blue Apron and HelloFresh stopped ordering lobster, as they follow the Monterey, California-based organization’s recommendations.

Maine’s politicians and lobstermen are livid over the red-listing, insisting there hasn’t been a documented entanglement between a right whale and lobster gear in Maine waters in nearly 20 years. The whales’ true enemies, they say, are the tankers and freighters in deep waters, not the lobster boats plying the shallows where lobsters live in summer.

Fishing groups say what’s truly endangered is the lobstering way of life in coastal Maine. It’s reached such a pass that the folks at Red’s Eats, a celebrated lobster roll stand in Wiscasset, are raising money for lobstermen. If you donate $1,000, they’ll give you a Red’s Eats sweatshirt.

That’s a tad pricey for me. But if you want to help lobstermen and whip inflation at the same time, I suggest going out for a lobster dinner. Or buy live lobsters if they’re available in a store near you and cook them yourself.

If you do, here’s my recipe for steamed lobster: Bring two inches of water to a rolling boil in a large covered pot. Add lobsters. Cook for 15 minutes until the lobsters are bright red. Drain, rinse and serve with nutcrackers or hammers, as required. A dish of drawn butter and corn on the cob make great sides.

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Marilyn Lavin
Marilyn Lavin
11 days ago

The retail outlet from which the lobster is obtained matters a lot!! And the level of “prep” the lobster receives is also a big factor right now — think wages these days. But lobster IS affordable is the Northeast right now — if it’s purchased whole, live and in a supermarket. This summer I bought eight from a supermarket chain in Saratoga Springs, NY — not on the coast and definitely a tourist destination. I paid $7.99/lb and the store steamed them for me for free.

And here’s how to handle the lobsters. The lobsters should be put in the refrig as soon as they’re brought home. Refrigerated, the lobsters will be good the day obtained and the following day. And heating them is a cinch — just put a couple of inches of water in a large pot, and once it starts steaming, put the lobster in on a steaming rack. Leave them there for 5 minutes (no more or less), take them out then follow Greg’s instructions for the butter and crackers. They also can go into the freezer! Just put them in the freezer wrapped in heavy plastic bags (the supermarket provided them that way.) Thaw them in the refrig for a day or two — they should be thawed — then put them in the steaming pot of water for 5 minutes. The lobsters will taste like they just came out of the ocean!!

The high price of lobster rolls or meat is not the result of “price gouging.” Restaurants, etc are currently paying top dollar for anyone willing to work. It’s not surprising that labor costs are being passed on.

R Quinn
R Quinn
11 days ago

I wish lobster prices you mention had made it to the Cape. This summer lobster meat was $50 a pound and a lobster roll was $30 to $35.

I wonder who is gouging who in all this?

Cammer Michael
Cammer Michael
11 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

A major reason we have inflation is corporations jacking up prices to take additional profits. This works for a while before the money is devalued and the prices of materials and labor catch up.

Guest
Guest
12 days ago

Thank you Mr. Spears. Sadly, the reduction in lobster prices has not yet reached our coastal NE town seafood shops or restaurants (dives and upscale). Perhaps a long weekend fall trip along the Maine coast with a stop at Red’s is in order.

Greg Spears
Greg Spears
12 days ago
Reply to  Guest

I’m sorry the price of lobster remains stubbornly high just a short distance from the wharf. I’d guess it’s because it’s one of the few foods that must be purchased live, which is difficult to arrange without high equipment and transport costs.

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