July 4, 2012 -- The price of lobsters has dropped just in time for your Fourth of July grill -- if you're lucky enough to live in Maine.
July 4 kicks off Maine's summer tourist season and visitors have already been indulging in the crustacean at retail prices of $3.99 or $4.99 per pound, which some note can be as cheap as bologna. But lobster customers on the West Coast or in the Midwest won't be benefiting from the same low prices. That's because there are at least two lobster products in the market: hard shell and new shell lobsters.
In the winter, there is basically only one kind of lobster caught in Maine waters. However, around July or August, lobsters grow and shed their shells. Lobster shells must harden before they can ship overnight to other parts of the country or the rest of the world. Because of the warmer-than-usual winter and spring, lobsters are shedding their shells earlier than usual. Lobstermen are then stuck with a glut of new shell lobsters that they have to sell in local markets.
"So they are catching lobsters in traps and they don't have any place to go with them," said Chuck Anderson, director of new business and retail with Souza Seafood, fresh seafood processor in Boston.
So what lobster fans are eating in Illinois, Spain or China are hard shells sold at a high premium, Anderson said. Hard shell lobsters can be worth at least $7 or $8 for wholesalers and $10 or $13 for retailers. Retailers in those places aren't scamming customers.
"Those are two different markets with basically two different products," Anderson said. "You have to have good, hard lobster shipped in those places."
It is possible that new shell lobsters could be distributed overnight to nearby locations such as in New York or Boston.
"But once you try to ship them overnight, their mortality is very high," Anderson said.
Another reason for the cheaper price of lobster in Maine over time is that the state increased the minimum size of captured lobsters in 2006. That means more lobsters have a longer time to reproduce, Anderson said.
"That has produced record harvest in the last three years," Anderson said.
Anderson predicts Maine's low lobster prices will remain a "great value" for the next two weeks, but will continue to be a "good value" for six weeks.
In contrast to the glut of cheaper lobsters in Maine, food shoppers across the country may notice that prices for crab, especially King crab, have skyrocketed in recent months.
Anderson said that's because king crab catches have fallen significantly compared to three or four years ago. In 2006, for example, there was a glut of Russian king crab that depressed prices when they were $9.99 a pound at retailers. But they were overfished, so Russian king crab supplies collapsed, leading to limited supply and current higher prices.
King crab is selling for $19.99/lb. for very small legs and up to $39.99/lb. for larger. Anderson said prices will remain high for a couple years or more.
Chesapeake crab prices from Maryland are high also. Anderson said Maryland crabs start to drop after July 4, but will remain high through Labor Day this year. Where there are many small crabs in the Chesapeake Bay currently, they will reach their legal size to be captured in September and October.
Anderson said this fall and next summer "look great" for Chesapeake Blue crabs, with prices possibly 50 percent lower in October. Prices are currently $250 a bushel for "number one" males, the most meaty, sought-after crabs, at six to seven dozen in a bushel. Number two male crabs are $150 per bushel, for eight to nine dozen per bushel. Female crabs are about $90 to $100 a bushel, at eight to nine dozen per bushel.
Snow crab prices are more reasonable this year, but not cheap. Snow crab is selling for $5.99/lb to $8.99/lb this year.
The cheapest time for domestic crabs is in September and October when crabs are fattening up, and not shedding as they do in the summer, to prepare for the cold winter.