Guilty Pleasure

By

James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
October 17, 2008

Those Maine lobsters I picked up at the local fish market for less than $5 a pound last night sure tasted good. Despite the great deal, I had some pangs of guilt knowing that the fellow who caught them only made about a dollar and the fish market probably made even less. The entire lobster supply chain is being pinched hard by a struggling global economy, as demand is in the gutter. The talk on the wharves now is all about survival.

Canadian processors, which essentially dictate live lobster prices, have been stung by the banking crisis in Iceland, which is searching for solutions. And even though Canada's winter lobster season doesn't open until late November, processors are not buying Maine lobsters, I've been told, thereby driving prices down. Way down. In Downeast Maine, you can find lobsters selling for spare change, as low as $3 each.

With no live market in Canada and the local tourism season a thing of the past, Maine fishermen are staring at a bleak economic reality heading into winter. And it's not just lobstermen. The groundfish fleet here is facing further cuts to its days at sea, which U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said the other day might "regulate our nation's first fishery out of existence."

Lobster prices should creep back up in the coming weeks, a local broker told me yesterday, adding that the market should rebound after Election Day. That might be wishful thinking, but what else do middlemen like him have to hang onto? Not too many dollar bills, that's for sure.

It's a far cry from the days when cod totes filled the Portland Fishing Exchange and you could smell the bounty all around downtown. And wasn't it just spring of last year when wholesale lobster prices reached $14 a pound? And you thought the oil market was volatile. All this comes after the tomalley melee this summer.

What's strange about this sudden crustacean devaluation is that just yesterday we reported on a study by foodservice-consulting agency Technomic of Chicago that concluded consumers, during these tough economic times, are still willing to pay more for premium proteins.

Meanwhile, the Maine lobster industry is seeking sustainable certification from the Marine Stewardship Council. At this point, I'm more concerned about the sustainability of lobstermen and brokers.

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