Consider the Lobster Prices

If lobster prices are at record lows, why is your lobster roll still so pricey?

lobster prices

Lobstermen are making less, but this wondrous thing still costs the same. (Photo: plasmonyc/Flickr)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Just like this time last year, New England lobstermen are lamenting the low prices they’re landing for their hard work on the water. Off-the-boat prices for the tasty crustaceans have dipped to as low as $2.20 a pound. Part of the reason is because the region is experiencing a continued profusion of lobster—this is an ongoing boom.

While scientists are still trying to sort out if the lobster glut is a result of warming ocean waters or a decline of predators (cod!) that like to snack on baby lobsters, the fact is, there are a lot of them, and lobstermen are again scrambling to stay afloat.

What you hungry readers won’t be seeing, despite the dip in prices, is a steamed lobster dinner on the cheap.

“There’s more lobster out there right now than anyone knows what to do with, but we’re still paying for it as if it were a rare delicacy,” writes James Surowiecki for The New Yorker. “So why aren’t we seeing markdowns?”

The answer, it turns out, is that lobster is complicated. It’s a luxury item. It’s the stuff of romantic Valentine dinners. Its price is linked to its image.

“If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less,” says Surowiecki. “Since most customers don’t know what’s been happening to the wholesale price of lobster, cutting the price could send the wrong signal: People might think your lobster is inferior to that of your competitors.”

Ah…psychology.

Not so fast, says Slate's Matthew Yglesias.

“Here’s another theory. Lobster rolls in New York City are expensive because they are not filled with uncooked live lobsters on a dock in Maine. Someone has to buy those lobsters, ship them to New York, cook them, take the meat out of the shell, and then place the dressed meat in a split-side toasted New England-style hot-dog bun,” he writes. “The fact that ‘the delicious lobster roll’…now costs you around seven to 12 times the amount that lobster meat is actually going for simply goes to show that you are paying for the shipping and the labor and the cost of the building rather than for the uncooked lobster meat.”

Yglesias has a point. But that same logic, sadly, isn’t being applied to the lobstermen. Their “building” is a boat—one that needs fuel and regular maintenance. They require a license to lobster. Bait, traps and other gear cost money. Skilled workers are required to haul lobsters onboard, measure, and sort each and every one. At $2.20 a pound, lobstermen aren’t getting that consumer-funded buffer in the same way as the guy in New York City gets while peddling mayo-drenched lobster rolls.

No one, however thinks the current lobster climate is going to last long-term. Those warming ocean temperatures, and increasing ocean acidification, will eventually alter the lobster frenzy we’re in right now.

“Anything above 20º C is extremely stressful for lobsters,” Bob Steneck, Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine, tells Think Progress. “While warmer waters off the coast of Maine in recent years have probably aided the boom in lobster numbers, putting us right in the temperature sweet spot for this species, we’re getting closer and closer to that point where the temperature is just too stressful for them, their immune system is compromised and it’s all over.”

Reaffirming there’s no such thing as a cheap lobster roll.

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