Lobster Prices: How much does Lobster Really Cost?

Are you looking for the best lobster prices? You’re not alone. Lobster is one of the most sought-after luxury foods in the world, and its prices are experiencing a ten-year high. Live lobster prices can be volatile, shifting and changing with demand. But it seems that the demand is only trending higher and higher. Learn more about the highs and lows, ins and outs of lobster pricing.

Current Lobster Prices Checkout our live lobster prices for hard-shell grade A lobsters. Prices are discounted as you buy more.

It can be hard to believe that at one time, lobster was considered so common that it was often derided as food for the poor! In 1622, the governor of the old Massachusetts territory (now Maine) apologized to a new group of settlers, telling them he could offer them *only* a meal of lobster. In fact, explorer Magellan noted in his diary that these creatures (lobsters) were “as thick as molasses” in the water. Lobstermen used to earn less than 2 pennies per pound. Some who ate lobsters at home even buried the evidence for fear their neighbors would see that they had to eat lobster, while workers would go on strike to protest being served lobster more than a few times a week. Lobsters were so plentiful on New England’s shores that they were often fed to prisoners. And when push came to shove, the crustaceans were crushed and tilled into the soil, used as fertilizer rather than consumed. Such a waste of precious lobster!

How lobsters went gourmet – and prices went up

In the mid 18oo’s lobster was about 11 cents a pound—less than a quarter of the price of a can of baked beans.

So how did lobster go from fertilizer to a luxury food fit for kings and queens? Two things happened. First, in the mid-19th century high-end restaurants and steakhouses began to open in cities like New York and Boston. Located along the East Coast, these restaurants had plenty of access to lobster and they began to experiment with putting them on the menu. Soon their influence and high-end clientele were changing the image of lobster – even today lobster and seafood towers are a staple at many of the finest restaurants.

At the same time, canning technology and new railroad lines were giving people across America, even those far from the ocean, access to lobster. Those same diners would travel to the big cities like New York and indulge their newfound love of lobster at the top restaurants, which only increased the demand for lobster and further enhanced the crustacean’s reputation.

Today people all over the world love to eat lobster. Lobster’s rich yet delicate meat is often synonymous with celebration and the good life—whether it’s served up in a savory curry, layered on a roll, or simply eaten steamed with butter. While lobsters are found around the globe, most experts argue that Maine lobsters are the best of the best. State of Maine fisheries are responsible for supplying over 80% of domestic lobster to the U.S. market, with many more tons exported around the world each year.

The Science of Pricing Lobsters

A lot can happen between the time a lobster is caught and when it ends up on your plate, all of which goes into the final price you paid when you purchased your lobster. But it all begins with the catch. Lobstermen and women have tough jobs – the sea can be pretty unforgiving at times – and the price they are paid for their catch during lobster season has to support them year-round, paying for everything from their boat to fuel to their crew’s wages.

Lobster Prices-in-Maine

The catch can be volatile and unpredictable from one season to the next. Unlike frozen shrimp or farmed oysters, it is impossible to fully predict and plan for a specific seasons’ harvest. That has led to some hefty price fluctuations in recent years. Just ten years ago the industry was reporting that, per pound, lobster was cheaper than hot dogs, a result of the poor economy impacting demand while lobster catches were booming. By the summer 2018 , the Boston Globe was reporting that “a recent shortage has lobster prices soaring,” resulting in lobster rolls selling for nearly $50.

However, this shortage seems to be an anomaly, as the catch has been steadily increasing in the US and Canada since the 1980s. Lobstermen are on the waters, more than ever, to trap this lucrative haul. Experts cite climate change as the reason – the waters are warmer than ever, contributing to a longer life cycle and increased fertility.

Despite the record catches, not everyone is convinced that lobstermen are actually seeing the fruits of their labor. Bloomberg Media reported in May 2017 that while more lobster than ever is being caught, wages are not following suit.

So how is lobster priced along the supply chain? Lobstermen typically sell their catch to co-ops or dealers, who in turn may sell to other dealers, and each of those dealers adds a premium to the price for their efforts. Along the way, these dealers are sorting the lobsters for quality – in fact, only a small fraction of the lobsters that are caught are going to be of high enough quality to sell as live lobster, while others may be damaged or their meat may be better used in processed lobster products.

Hard-Shell Lobsters Cost More: The hardness of the shell dictates the price of the lobster.

Shell firmness can range from processing grade, where the shell is paper thin, to firm shell, to old shell, where the lobster’s shell is rock hard. Hard-shell lobsters cost more because they are hearty, filled with meat, and can survive long shipments.

Of course,premium, hard-shell lobster also demands a premium price. By the time a whole lobster ends up at a supermarket or even a Zagat-rated restaurant that single lobster could have changed hands up to seven times, with costs being added along the way. Because lobster is a wild resource and prices fluctuate restaurants rarely post prices, instead the menu will say “market price.” This final price is marked up (sometimes 2-3 times) from the amount the restaurant paid their local lobster distributor. All of these factors are why a lobster sold for a few bucks a pound at port ends up as a $100.00 entrée.

Warm Water, Global Warming Impacts Lobster Prices

Lobsters thrive in cold water with the right ranges of salinity and pH levels. However, rising ocean temperatures have pushed lobster populations northeast to deeper, colder waters. The million dollar question is how will lobster prices be impacted by climate change?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) reports that ocean temperatures worldwide have risen an average rate of 1.6 °every 10 years since 1980. And the Gulf of Maine, historically American lobsters’ preferred habitat, has been heating up even faster than the world’s other oceans.

Water temperature is a major factor in the collapse of the lobster industry in southern New England waters. Research also shows a direct link with water temperature and epizootic shell disease—a bacterial infection that eats away at lobsters’ shells. In Long Island Sound, for example, the lobster population has been decimated and plagued by shell disease.

Lobster Catch and Distribution
Change in lobster catch distribution from 1967 to 2014. The dark purple locations represent the highest number of lobsters caught. Credit: NOAA Climate.gov.

Warming waters have also impacted the marine ecosystem. According to Richard Wahle, director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute , cold-water copepods, the preferred food of juvenile lobsters, do not fair well in warm sea temperatures either. At the same time, the warm waters have contributed to the rise of new predators of baby lobsters, including black seabass, squid, and eels.

Farther north in the Gulf of Maine, it’s been a different story. Warming oceans have actually helped to increase the lobster population by supercharging the breading grounds. Overfishing of Atlantic cod, once lobsters’ biggest predator, and conservation efforts have both had a hand in the lobster boom. But with rising sea temperatures, scientist worry how long it will last.

Lobster Prices: Blame it on the Weather

If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.
— Mark Twain

Weather impacts each lobster season and impacts the price. Not only does the weather impact the lobster population itself, but it can also keep lobstermen and women off the water.

The Lobster Glut: Warm winters in 2012-13 led to record harvests of soft-shell lobsters that came earlier than usual in June. Prices tanked to a 20-year low as supply outstripped demand.

Water Temperature Lobster

Now let’s think back a couple years to the winter of 2012: the total snowfall was less than 40 inches and the average temperature in Bangor, Maine was just above 30 degrees. Lobsters molted far earlier than usual and lobstermen and women brought in record catches at a time of year when the demand for lobster is traditionally low. As a result, the high catch volume caused Maine lobster prices to drop significantly, where they remained through the summer.

2015 was a different story. Frozen over waters prevented many lobstermen from setting traps or even getting their boats out of the harbor. The temperature of water at Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor, Maine was a frigid 36 degrees and it was nearly May! At the same time the year before the water temperature was around 43 degrees. The deep freeze also impacted the Canadians. For the first time in 20 years, the P.E.I fisherman Association had to delay the start of the lobster season because the Gulf of St. Lawrence was iced over. Lobstermen caught very few lobsters. The result was sky high lobster prices and a shellfish shortage. Lobstermen and women anxiously waited for a warm spring to arrive with open claws!

Shell Shocked: In 2017 lobster market prices spiked as high as $15 per pound. One Maine shack was selling lobster rolls for $49.

Lobster Boat Ice
Weather impacts lobster prices. (A local lobster boat frozen in ice.)

In 2018, cold, rainy Nor’easters were followed by the devastating January “bomb cyclone.” This meant that lobstermen weren’t able to get out onto the water to harvest the thousands of tons that they would have normally caught this time of year. The first two weeks of January are normally a key time for harvesting lobsters across New England and Maritime Canada, but the so-called “bomb cyclone” weather front blew across eight US states and parts of Canada. This caused winds of more than 62 miles an hour and knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses.

Depending on their port, lobstermen were only able to do their job for 13 to 18 of the 36 available days of fishing time, which resulted in both live lobster and processed lobster meat shortages. Lobsters become dormant in very cold conditions. That prevents them from crawling into traps and keeps lobster landings low.

Clearly weather impacts lobster supplies and prices, and the changing global climate is only going to continue to have an effect on lobster prices.

Retailers Worry About Rising Costs

Rising lobster prices are never a good sign for retailers, who worry that price-conscious consumers will be scared off. The lead-up to the 2017 holiday season had some retailers worried, fearful that the increases would scare away holiday buyers. One expert cited prices of “ boat price of $5.95 per pound on average in May, compared to $3.90 at the height of the season last fall.” In 2018, retailers were on the edge of their seats as prices rose and fell, from the high prices in the spring and early summer to the drops after the China tariffs went into effect.

Hipsters Discover Lobster

From prisons to royalty, lobster has weathered a lot of fluctuation in popularity over the years. Today lobster is now synonymous with class, luxury, and the gourmet plate. Live lobster has long been in demand for high-end bistros, seafood shacks and sushi restaurants alike. And now the demand for processed lobster meat is following suit, as a new generation of diners discovers lobster.

Price Lobster Rolls
Tourists can pay a high price for lobster rolls.

More than simply being a food featured on haute cuisine menus, this versatile ingredient is also seeing a resurgence in popularity as a filling in a simple buttered roll.

Yes, one only needs to stroll the streets of Brooklyn, New York or the London Borough of Hackney to see that lobster rolls are ultra trendy on food trucks and in hipster eateries around the world. Who can resist the sublime pairing of delicate lobster, rich mayo, crunchy celery and a pillowy roll? We certainly can’t.

The lobster roll has transformed from a regional delicacy found only in New England to a global trend. Food trucks and diners from London to Sydney can be found hawking lobster rolls to hungry and appreciative crowds. It seems that hipsters love the taste of a fresh lobster roll – can you blame them?

But it’s not just lobster rolls. Creative chefs around the world continue to find new uses for lobster as diners seek out premium experiences. We’ve seen lobster butter, sous vide lobster, fancy burgers topped with lobster, lobster mac and cheese, even Bloody Mary’s with huge lobster claws reaching out over the rim of the glass. And as lobster becomes trendy with a new generation, that popularity also impacts lobster prices.

Lobster-Crazy China Drives Up Lobster Prices

While retailers in the US are worried about high costs scaring away potential customers, customers in other markets are less likely to be deterred by cost. In the emerging Mainland China markets, high-cost ingredients are often used as a show of hospitality and celebration. Ironically, an increase in global lobster prices might actually result in a higher demand from China markets! There’s even a name for these types of products – Veblen goods. You never know what you might learn on a given day!

Not only can you blame the weather for lobster prices, but you can blame China’s new love affair with Maine lobster. Two-thirds of the lobster sold overseas ended up in the pots of Asian consumers, according to the Press Herald, up 36% from the year before.

In the past five years Canadian exports of live lobsters have increased by 400%. Another big Asian market is South Korea. Stanfield International Airport in Halifax, Canada, had one cargo of lobsters headed to Korea recorded at 100 tonnes. With limited live lobsters to process, lobster meat and frozen lobster tail prices can only go up in price.

Lobster prices are affected by an ever-expanding global market. While traditional European markets have stalled due to economic and currency woes, markets such as China and Korea have “pinched” the live lobster supply. But just as economies around the world ebb and flow, so too does the price of lobster. We have all felt the crunch imposed upon us by inflation and the weakening economy. And while the price of lobster increases, so too does the cost of doing business (i.e. fuel, bait, maintenance, repairs, labor, etc.).

The future is uncertain, though. Not everyone thinks the China’s love affair with lobster will last, as that countrys’ economy begins to plateau and US imposed tariffs impact China’s global imports. In fact, live lobster exports to China dropped from nearly $12 million to just over $4 million after the recent tarifs went into effect, which impose a 25% tariff on U.S. lobster specifically.

Learn more about why the Chinese are so mad for lobster.

So What Time of Year are Lobster Prices the Best?

Is there a best season for lobster prices? Much depends on the weather, the catch, and the demand. For example the demand for lobster is at its highest point of the year during Christmas, New Year’s and Chinese New Year’s. You would be hard pressed to find cheap lobster prices during the holidays. It’s not unlike buying a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day.

As chronicled above, a long hard winter and chilly spring can stall the lobster season. Typically May is one of the best times of the year to buy lobster, that is if the water is not freezing cold. Remember, cold water temperatures make lobsters less active and less likely to search out food, like the bait in a lobster trap.

High lobster prices can continue through early summer unless soft-shell lobster makes a return. When the waters warm, lobsters molt and grow to market size and increase the population. More lobsters in the supply chain will drive the price down. Learn more about the best seasons to enjoy lobster.

How to Get the Best Price for Live Lobsters

  • Buy larger quantities. Like most industries, you can often get a discount when you buy larger amounts, particularly when you buy online versus at your local supermarket.
  • Crack it yourself. Cracking hard shell lobsters open can be tough, which is why prices for pre-shelled whole claws or legs can be so high. But if you take a little time to learn how to crack open a whole lobster yourself you can save money – and it can even be fun to sit around the table, cracking open lobsters together.
  • Pay attention to the season. The lobster season affects prices. If you want to save a little money, schedule your fancy dinner in the off-season.
  • Buy from a dedicated lobster source. Lobster retailers who are close to the catch and have access to large quantities can provide the best price. Also, stay clear of tourist hot spots, where your’re almost guaranteed to pay a high price for your crustacean. Instead,shop where the locals shop. Visit the seafood market at local grocery stores for lower lobster prices.
  • Cook it at home. Going to a restaurant will always result in premium prices. You’ll pay at least double the price of what the restaurant paid for your lobster. By cooking lobster yourself, you are guaranteed to save money.
  • Use all of it. Once you have invested in a quality, whole lobster, be sure to use every part of it to get your money’s worth.
  • Buy Lobster Meat Instead. While you might miss out on the experience of cracking open your very own lobster, you will always get a better price per pound with lobster meat. Think about it. About 20% of the whole lobster will be shell weight. It takes a little over (4) 1 1/2 lb. live lobsters to make a pound of lobster meat.

Sources:

Buell, S., Buell, S., & Boston Magazine. (2018, April 23). Lobster Prices Are Apparently Way Up in Massachusetts This Season. Retrieved from https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2018/04/23/massachusetts-lobster-prices/

Warming waters linked to lobster disease. (2018, August 20). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180820122220.htm

Antimicrobial activity in the cuticle of the American lobster, Homarus americanus. (2015, March 21). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1050464815001084

(2015, March 02). Asian demand for Canadian lobster on the rise, prices not so much: Fisherman. Retrieved from https://o.canada.com/business/asian-demand-for-canadian-lobster-on-the-rise-prices-not-so-much-fisherman

Trotter, B. (2018, June 11). Maine’s annual lobster landings drop by nearly $100M in value. Retrieved from https://bangordailynews.com/2018/03/02/fisheries/maines-annual-lobster-landings-drop-by-nearly-100m-in-value-largest-decline-ever/

Lobster season delayed because of ice conditions | CBC News. (2015, April 23). Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/lobster-season-delayed-because-of-ice-conditions-1.3046400

Whittle, P. (2015, February 27). American lobster: The new Chinese New Year delicacy. Retrieved from https://www.detroitnews.com/story/life/food/2015/02/27/lobster-china-exports-prosperity-new-year/24024445/?from=new-cookie

Tight supply boosts lobster prices. (2015, April 21). Retrieved from https://www.ellsworthamerican.com/maine-news/waterfront/tight-supply-boosts-lobster-prices/

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