No shell, big shock: Maine lobster rolls fetch record prices this season

·9 min read

May 29—Lobster roll prices are breaking records this season, but the value of Maine lobster meat is only one ingredient in a complex inflationary recipe.

The prices lobstermen are getting at the dock for their catch are down from this time last year, in part because of uncertainty in the global market. Restaurant and lobster shack owners say that while the price of lobster is the biggest factor, there is more that goes into the cost of a roll.

Justin Snyder, dock manager at Beal's Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor, where a 4.5-ounce lobster roll was going for $41.99 on Wednesday, said the price of lobsters on the dock steadily increasing over the past five years has had a big impact on the cost of producing Maine's signature summer dish.

The state's lobster prices reached record highs last year. Maine lobstermen landed 108 million pounds with a record value of $725 million. Southwest Harbor is one of the most competitive harbors in the state where lobstermen can get the highest prices for their catch, Snyder said, but that cost makes up only part of the equation in pricing a lobster roll.

"We're experiencing the same thing that everybody else is experiencing in the U.S. right now," he said. "Everything's more expensive: Plates are more expensive, buns are more expensive, butter is more expensive, labor's more expensive, and the lobster industry is not immune to those economic conditions."

AVERAGE ROLL PRICE TOPS $30

Last week, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram surveyed 16 lobster shacks and restaurants and found the average price was $30.54 for a roll, though the sizes are not uniform. Individual prices ranged from $15.95 for a traditional 4-ounce roll at the Zack Shack in Thomaston to $47.99 for a jumbo roll with a full pound of lobster meat at Boothbay Lobster Wharf.

Red's Eats, off U.S. Route 1 in Wiscasset, was selling its popular lobster rolls for $31 apiece Wednesday. Deborah Gagnon, one of the owners of the roadside eatery, believes it's worth every penny.

"We do not measure. We pile our rolls high," she said. "Our guests will get a lobster roll with the entire tail, claws and tails, claw and knuckles, filling the middle of the roll. Pair that with Kate's Maine Butter and/or extra heavy mayonnaise and it's 5-star."

The price for a roll fluctuates daily at Red's based on the market value of lobster. Gagnon said she always lowers the price of her rolls when the cost of her daily deliveries drops.

Across Route 1 at Sprague's Lobster in Wiscasset, lobster rolls were selling Wednesday for $28.99 apiece. The Highroller Lobster Co. in Portland was charging $32, and The Travelin' Lobster in Bar Harbor was charging $26.95.

The price of lobster is generally higher in the spring because supply is low. Many lobstermen are still gearing up for the season and fewer are out harvesting. Further, only more expensive hard-shell lobsters are sold, because lobsters haven't molted yet. Once the lobsters start shedding, soft-shell lobsters become available. Those fetch a lower price at the dock, because there is less meat in the shells.

It usually takes around four to five hard-shell lobsters, and six to six-and-a-half soft-shell lobsters, to get a pound of meat, according to Brendon Alterio, manager at Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster in South Freeport.

Alterio says he believes his $25 price for a 4-ounce traditional Maine lobster roll served on a hot dog bun is fair.

"It's higher than last year, but we didn't go up as high as some people (who) are really charging a lot of money," he said. "Indeed, we did go up, of course, because we had to pay more for labor and pay more for product. Everything is up. So we had to do what we had to do, but we wanted to be fair, and work on volume."

But this year's prices on the dock — around $6 a pound at Cranberry Isles Fishermen's Co-Op on Thursday — are actually down from last year at this time. Snyder attributed this to Canadian processors not being willing to pay as much as they did last year.

"The really big fish are the ones that really control the price, not so much the lobster dealers," he said.

RISKY GLOBAL MARKET

The drop in what Canadian companies are willing to pay at Maine docks comes from what Stewart Lamont called "a desire to reflect a massively altered appetite the world over due to the riskiest environment in your entire life." Lamont is managing director at Tangier Lobster Co., a Canadian exporter of live lobster to Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

He noted that the live and processed markets are very different but offered his perspective on Canadian imports of Maine lobster, which he said are dominated by processors looking to buy soft-shell lobsters to process into value-added frozen products.

"There is less national and international demand for live and value-added frozen seafood products today than at any time in my (42-year) career," he said. "Company after company in all parts of the lobster trade are concerned about it at this moment. A correction is taking place not of our making. Consumers the world over are speaking by not buying."

Lamont said four main factors driving down the price of lobster globally right now are lack of demand in Asia, particularly because of COVID-19 restrictions in China; lack of demand in Europe because of the war in Ukraine; lack of demand in America because of high inflation; and a "hangover" from the exceptionally high prices of live and processed lobster last year. Last year, people were more willing to pay for extravagant lobster meals, he said, but now they are more worried about the price of gas.

It is uncertain how much this perception of risk will translate to lower wholesale prices for lobster on the dock. Some lobstermen are concerned because they are facing inflated fuel and bait prices as well as added costs from new gear regulations meant to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

"If you can't make a profit, or not enough to justify the time and effort, then there is no sense in fishing," Freeport lobsterman Andy Spalding wrote May 21 on a Facebook thread about lobster prices. "If that bait and fuel is worth more than the catch itself, it's over."

Spalding said in an interview, "Lobster is already lower (in) price than it was at any time last year, and fuel prices and inflation have skyrocketed. How is lobster the only commodity that goes down with inflation? It defies basic economics."

STABLE DEMAND, SHAKY SUPPLY

At Graffam Bros. Seafood Market in Rockport, owner Leni Gronros is worried that new regulations on lobster gear will prevent some lobstermen from fishing this year, which will mean supply will be low while demand remains the same.

"Typically, this time of year is still people gearing up and getting ready to go," he said. "I hear a lot of people are not going to go with the price of fuel and the new gear regulations. They're just going to step back a bit and see what happens before they gear up. And if they don't like it, they just won't go. It's very concerning to us.

"That is going to be a huge factor in the next year or two. As the equipment prices go up, costs are going to go up and there'll be (fewer) people fishing."

Meanwhile, he says, there is "huge demand" for the iconic Maine sandwich. He sells 200 to 300 a day in the summer.

In March and April, there was so little supply that Gronros was charging $45 for a lobster roll and $105 for a pound of picked lobster meat. His lobster rolls are now down to $24, which he said has been standard for the past two summers, since the pandemic hit and everything changed. The pre-pandemic price was $18.

If costs do go down with more supply and lower lobster prices this summer, he said, "I can't say I'll lower my price a whole lot on the lobster roll. I'll take that time to actually make up a little ground."

TOURISTS PAY A PREMIUM

Marc Nighman, general manager of the Cranberry Isles Fishermen's Co-op, said that while the price has been fluctuating quite a bit this spring, falling from about $12 to $13 per pound to $6 on Thursday, he does not foresee the price dropping this year to a point where lobstermen will stop fishing, which did happen in 2012.

Business publishing company Urner Barry reported last week that the price drop from $12.35 per pound on April 1 to $9.35 per pound on May 1 was the largest in one month since 2018.

"Every fisherman fishes differently, and it really depends on what their business model is, what's affordable to them," Nighman said. "You got somebody in a very small boat, who fishes by himself and he can burn very little fuel and just fish (near shore). Or you have these big boats that have three crew that go way offshore. Obviously, they have to catch a certain amount of lobsters to cover the cost of the boat crew and the bait, which is substantially more than the little guy fishing out of a small boat by himself inside the harbor."

Nighman said Maine's strong tourism sector and the industry's efforts to add value and open new markets is helping Maine weather the storm happening in the global market. With more processing plants existing in Maine now than a decade ago and investing in new processing technology, more lobsters can stay in the local economy and less shipping is needed.

"The technology has come so far that the frozen and fresh meat products are so good now that there's a higher demand for them instead of shipping live as much," he said. "Maine is very popular in New England ... to go to Maine and have a lobster roll, so I think that helps our pricing."

And that can translate to higher prices for fishermen here.

At Beal's Lobster Pier, to prepare for the projected high number of tourists coming to Acadia National Park over Memorial Day weekend, Snyder said he will be paying a little more for lobster on the dock this weekend to ensure he has enough to meet demand.

"I will pay what I need to pay to get lobsters in the building, especially at this early point in the season, where the volume of the catch is a fraction of what it's going to be in July and August," he said. "It's very important, especially this week being a holiday weekend. We're going to see a huge influx of tourists appear in Acadia National Park, so it behooves me to make sure that I have plenty of product to feed my guests."