Maine lobster landings up slightly in 2018; Canadian catch remains even

Published on
January 17, 2019

Maine’s lobster harvest was up slightly in 2018, but didn’t match the total of the record-setting 2016 season.

Fishermen in Maine landed a little over 110.8 million pounds (50,258 metric tons – MT) of lobster in 2017, after landing an all-time high of nearly 131 million pounds in 2016. Anecdotal data shared at the 2019 Global Seafood Market Conference revealed that the 2018 catch total finished at around 119 million pounds.

“It was a very, very healthy harvest rate from Maine this year,” Keith Moores, president of seafood supplier F.W. Bryce, said in sharing the data during his presentation.

Moores reported unofficial figures show the Canadian harvest was stable in 2018 at around 90,000 metric tons. In 2017, Canada caught 92,682 metric tons of lobster, or approximately 200 million pounds and In 2016, the catch was nearly identical, at 92,601 metric tons.

“As far as harvesting, there’s a very stable supply of lobster,” Moores said of the 2018 projections.

After a delayed start due to bad weather, the Canada’s current season has been steady, according to Owen Kenney, the sales and business development manager of Downeast Specialty Products, which has lobster operations in both Canada and Maine.

Because of several factors – most notably the trade war between the U.S. and China – live exports from Canada increased significantly in 2018, and even more so in the current season. That created what Kenney called a “different dynamic” for the sector, in which the processing sector had little to no access to raw material compared to the previous January.

“The net result will be very limited frozen production coming out of the December and January season,” Kenney said. “It’s a time of the year when the processing sector is typically quite active, [so] then to not use that sector, which typically backstops the tremendous landings at the start of that season, is something that’s pretty unique in terms of this industry.”

The result has been dramatic price fluctuations and an expected winter shortfall in frozen lobster, Kenney said. The full impact won’t be known until after Chinese New Year, which falls on 5 February, 2019. 

"That’s typically a holiday that lobster shippers in Maine look forward to as well, but 2019 will be an exception. The trade war and resulting tariffs on U.S. lobster heading into China has caused a huge shift in the supply chain for distributors of Maine lobster, according to Annie Tselikis, the executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association.

“There has been a pretty substantial shift in the way our lobster wholesalers are doing business,” she said. “It definitely set off a pretty dramatic shock to the industry when we found out in June that tariffs would be imposed in early July. We saw pretty aggressive shipping to China during that three-week period … and after 6 July, we saw a really dramatic shift away from China.”

Tselikis said lobster dealers have fought hard to increase sales to customers in new and expanding markets such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.

“Those efforts have been much more aggressive due to [the tariffs],” Tselikis said.

Darrell Roche, the vice president of sales and procurement at Whitecap International Seafood Exporters, said despite losing shipments from the U.S., Chinese lobster demand is not slowing. 

“Every single year, demand is growing,” he said. “What the Chinese like to call Boston lobster is a staple, like chicken or beef, and a sign of prosperity. Any good restaurant in southeast Asia and especially China, is serving and promoting lobster.”

The tariffs and supply disruptions have caused prices to rise, but Roche said Chinese buyers are “very astute” and are “really trying to make sure they don’t overpay for the product.”

“While demand is strong, there is a limit,” Roche said. “[Sellers] have been pushing the market to the limit in China,, and I think we’re finally close to a ceiling there.”

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