Lobster: Cheaper than Bologna

By Toni Waterman

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July 17, 2012


Listen: Toni Waterman reports and WGBH science editor Heather Goldstone adds her perspective.

 
SOUTH BOSTON, Mass. — If you’re the type of person who associates lobster with big, celebratory events, then you’re in luck. With prices lower than they’ve been in decades, something as simple as — well, a Tuesday night can be reason to celebrate.
 
It’s 6 a.m. at Medeiros Dock in South Boston. The sun is just coming up as lobsterman Steven Holler gets his boat, the November Gale, ready for a day at sea. He steps into his bright orange bib pants, slips on his galoshes and then effortlessly glides his boat to the bait dock.
 
He loads $700 worth of fish on to the deck. And by 6:15, Holler and his crew of one set off to haul lobster traps in the waters off Boston’s Harbor Islands.
 
Lobsters, lobsters everywhere
 
In 35 years in the business, Holler says he’s never seen a lobster season quite like this one. It all started this spring.
 
“We came out to haul that gear expecting to get 30 or 40 pounds and what we saw was just totally off the charts. Something we’ve never seen before. There were just lobsters everywhere,” he says.
 
Plentiful catches came early, flooding the lobster market up the East Coast. And since it was May, there weren’t enough tourists to eat them up.
 
And if there’s one thing we all learned in economics class: Surpluses make prices plummet.
 
Lobstermen in the Boston area are getting $3 - $3.50 a pound right now. Retail prices are a bit higher at around $5, which means that the price is running pretty equal to a bologna sandwich.
 
“I looked at a slip from last year and it was anywhere between $4.50 - $4.75 per pound,” says Holler. "The price we’re getting is something like you’d get in the '80s — mid-'80s. And we’re paying 2012 fuel prices, bait prices and labor prices.”
 
The problem in a nut lobster shell
 
Lobster is even cheaper further north: The Wall Street Journal reports that some lobstermen in Maine are getting as low as $1.25 a pound. And it doesn’t seem to be going up anytime soon, because now there’s another factor dragging prices down: soft-shells. Those are lobsters that have just shed their shells and are growing into new, bigger ones.
 
The shedding process usually doesn’t start until mid-July, but lobstermen this year have been catching soft-shells since May.
 
“A soft-shell lobster is veal in the lobster world,” says Holler. “It is tender. It is sweet.”
 
Sweet, but fragile — too fragile to ship long distances, which puts even more lobsters in the Northeast supply chain.
 
A solution: Eat up
 
“The public has to know: there’s a lot of lobsters out there,” says Holler. “So the more lobster people buy, hopefully it will be better for the industry and hopefully that trickles down to the fisherman.”
 
There’s one more big factor playing in this perfect storm: Canadian processing plants, which usually buy up any extra lobsters, aren’t. They had strong catches this season too and already have their own backlog of lobsters.
 
Still, Holler says he will keep setting his traps, even if it means catching too much of a good thing.
 


Bill Adler of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association talks about the problem on Greater Boston.

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