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Record Lobster Harvest: Too Much of a Good Thing

Hot & Cool Food Trends

A major dispute has boiled over between lobstermen in Maine and Canada. The problem: too many lobsters.

A market glut caused by a potential record haul of the crustaceans has severely depressed wholesale prices. Concerned for their livelihood, angry Canadian fishermen have recently taken to the streets, blocking truckloads of Maine lobsters from being delivered to Canadian processing plants that produce lobster products for U.S. restaurants and supermarkets.

The blockades have brought Canada’s lobster-processing industry to a virtual halt, putting thousands of employees out of work and wreaking havoc with Maine’s lobster industry. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has even been asked to intervene.

Lobstermen have been getting about $2.35 a pound for their catch, about a dollar under what they were paid a year ago, and many fear prices will go lower.

The lobster business has been troubled in recent years by too much of a good thing. The combined haul from the U.S. and Canada has spiked from 150 million pounds in 1992 to more than 257 million pounds in 2010—the latest year statistics are available.

This season, a combination of warm weather and good conservation techniques has resulted in what will likely be an all-time record harvest.

With so much lobster on the market, many fishermen have struggled to cover their costs for fuel, bait, boat payments, and other expenses.

Do the low lobster prices get passed along to the consumer? In a few cases, yes. Whole live Maine lobsters have been on sale recently in some New England supermarkets for $3.99 a pound or less, down from the usual price of $6.

But live lobsters make up only 15 percent of the market; research has found that consumers prefer to eat lobster when dining out, partly because they don’t like having to kill the creatures themselves or deal with the mess.

In the tourist town of Kennebunkport, Maine, made famous by a vacationing President George H.W. Bush, the Clam Shack restaurant lowered its menu price for a lobster dinner from $11.99 to $9.99—and that’s down from $14.99 just a year ago.

Generally speaking, however, lobster prices for consumers have not changed much at all, according to most industry analysts.

Fishing industry representatives, government officials, and lobstermen are all looking for solutions to the lobster glut problem. Ideas being considered include limiting the number of days for fishing, seeking out new markets, and expanding the range of lobster-related items like lobster mac and cheese and lobster pot pie.

While much of the world copes with waters that have been nearly depleted from overfishing, those in the lobster fishing industry in North America have more on their plate than they know what to do with.

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