PORTLAND, Maine - New England's summer lobster season is off to a slow start, but consumers are paying a little bit less for the critters than they were a year ago.
The annual summer boom in lobster catch has yet to arrive, lobster fishermen and distributors said. Lobster catch typically picks up in the warm months when many lobsters shed their shells and reach legal harvesting size.
So far, supply is lower than recent years, but that hasn't translated into higher prices for consumers. The wholesale price for 1¼-pound hard shell lobsters was $7.63 per pound in early July, business publisher Urner Barry reported. The price was a little more than $8 per pound at the same time last year.
Members of Maine's lobster industry said they still expect a healthy catch this year, but it appears to be arriving somewhat late compared to recent years, when the catch has soared.
“It's starting to trickle in. It has just been a slow start to the season. It's reminiscent of an old-fashioned season,” said Bill Bruns, operations manager for The Lobster Co. in Arundle. “We're starting to see some signs of life.”
American lobster, most of which comes ashore in Maine, has been booming in terms of volume of catch in recent years. Maine's lobster catch exceeded 130 million pounds for the first time last year, and has surpassed 100 million pounds for six years in a row after previously rarely reaching 80 million.
The value of the crustaceans has also been high, and consumers and wholesalers have frequently been paying more for them, partly because of increased interest in U.S. lobster from China.
This year, stores in New England are selling them for $8 to $13 per pound depending on how large they are and whether they are hard shell or softshell. Hard shell lobsters tend to be more expensive. Those prices are about in line with recent years.
“When there is just a slow and steady delivery that is not too great and not too little, it leads to a much more stable sort of market,” said John Sackton, who publishes the SeafoodNews.com website.
The other coastal New England states, New York and New Jersey also have lobster fisheries, with Massachusetts having the second-largest lobster catch in the country. The crustacean is also the subject of a large fishery in Canada.
One of the reasons catch is currently slow is because the price of bait is high, so fishermen are holding off until they know they'll have successful runs, said David Cousens, a South Thomaston lobsterman and the president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
“We're not catching any lobsters and the price is average,” he said. “But this is not panic mode.”