Lobster prices are falling in New England as the industry deals with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and they could drop even more later this summer, industry officials said.
The American lobster fishing industry, based mostly in Maine, has had to cope with a supply chain that has been disrupted by the pandemic. Wholesale prices were lower than previous years this spring, and consumers started to see lower prices at markets earlier in June.
Members of the industry said prices could likely fall more in July. America's lobster catch typically picks up in the summer, when lobsters shed their shells and reach legal trapping size. This year, fishers will likely bring lobsters to the docks in a time when restaurants are slowed or shuttered and seafood processors aren't taking nearly as many of the crustaceans, industry members said.
That could translate to lower prices to consumers, who are already paying less than $6 per pound for lobsters in some Maine markets. Prices around $8 or $9 per pound are typical of this month in Maine.
"The state needs to do something to curb supply, because there is no demand," said David Cousens, a lobster fisher and former president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "Otherwise we're going to have a disaster."
Cousens said many fishers are seeing prices of $2 to $3 per pound at the docks. Last year's average price was $4.82 per pound. For wholesalers, live, 1.25-pound lobsters were worth $6.74 per pound in the Northeast in April, according to business publisher Urner Barry. That was 13% less than a year ago and 37% less than two years ago.
The lobster industry is adjusting on the fly because of restaurant closures, said Eric Pray, who runs a lobster business called Lady Catherine in Portland. Some, including Pray, have taken to selling lobsters direct to consumers to try to weather the difficult times. That's working for now, but it'll be difficult once lobster catch picks up in the summer, he said.
John Sackton, a seafood industry analyst and publisher of SeafoodNews.com, agreed. An influx of thousands of pounds of lobster into the market this summer would depress prices, he said, and direct sales would be unlikely to abate that.
"It's helpful when your landings are relatively low. But when you're a lobster guy landing 800 pounds of lobster, it's not going to," he said.
The pandemic is one of many stresses on the lobster industry. The industry is also contending with climate change, potential new fishing restrictions designed to help endangered right whales and trade imbalances with Europe and China that favor Canada's lobster industry. President Donald Trump has directed the federal government to provide lobster fishers with financial assistance to make up for lost income from China's tariffs.
Still, catch in recent years has been high, and prices have been competitive. Maine fishers have caught more than 100 million pounds of lobster per year in every year since 2011 after previously never accomplishing that feat.
The volume of fishing could be less this year because of the pandemic, but it's still going to go on, said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
"Everyone is slowed down a little bit but everyone is still fishing," he said. "It looks like it might be tough year marketwise."