Food

Maine Is Drowning in Lobsters

The market is booming, but it's not making anybody rich.

Yummy.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In his famous 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," biologist Garrett Hardin singled out ocean fishing as a prime example of self-interested individuals short-sightedly depleting shared resources:

Professing to believe in the "inexhaustible resources of the oceans," they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.

The whales have actually been doing a lot better lately. Fish in general, not so much.

Then there's the Maine lobster. As University of Maine anthropologist James M. Acheson put it in his 2003 book "Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry":

Since the late 1980s, catches have been at record-high levels despite decades of intense exploitation. We have never produced so many lobsters. Even more interesting to managers is the fact that catch levels remained relatively stable from 1947 to the late 1980s. While scientists do not agree on the reason for these high catches, there is a growing consensus that they are due, in some measure, to the long history of effective regulations that the lobster industry has played a key role in developing.

Two of the most prominent and straightforward regulations are that lobsters must be thrown back in the water not only if they are too small but also if they are too big (because mature lobsters produce the most offspring), and that egg-bearing females must not only be thrown back but also marked (by notches cut in their tails) as off-limits for life. Acheson calls this "parametric management" -- the rules "control 'how' fishing is done," not how many lobsters are caught -- and concludes that "Although this approach is not supported by fisheries scientists in general, it appears to work well in the lobster fishery."

It's a seafood sustainability success story! But there's been an interesting twist since Acheson wrote those words in 2003. That already-record-setting Maine lobster harvest has more than doubled:

The Lobster Boom

Maine annual lobster harvest, in pounds

Source: Maine Department of Marine Resources

Dotted lines represent missing data.

Sustainable fisheries practices alone can't really explain why today's lobster take is more than seven times the pre-2000 average. What can? The most universally accepted answer seems to be that depletion of the fish that used to eat young lobsters (mainly cod, landings of which peaked in Maine in 1991 and have fallen 99.2 percent since) has allowed a lot more lobsters to grow big enough for people to catch and eat them. The tragedy of one commons has brought unprecedented bounty to another.

Warming ocean temperatures have also improved lobster survival rates. Canada's Atlantic provinces have experienced a lobster boom similar to Maine's. Not so in the New England states to the south and west of Maine, where the water is now apparently a little too warm and lobster harvests peaked in the 1990s. Within Maine, which now accounts for more than 80 percent of U.S. lobsters, the sweet spot for lobstering has moved from the state's southern coast to the cooler northeast.

Other explanations I've heard during a visit to Maine this week include:

  1. Reduced incidence of a lobster disease called gaffkemia, and
  2. Increased effort and efficiency on the part of lobstermen, 1 who go farther offshore and can haul in more traps in a day than they used to.

The one thing nobody can answer is how long these good times will continue. We journalists have a tendency to see disaster around every corner -- Quartz's Gwynn Guilford concluded an epic 2015 examination of the lobster boom with this warning:

Two decades of lobster abundance isn’t thanks to human mastery of “sustainability.” The ecosystem extremes that seem likely to have produced it -- how we’ve pulled apart the food web, heated up the sea, re-rigged the lobster population structure -- are volatile. Inevitably, nature warps again.

Those seem like reasonable concerns. But every time I brought them up among lobster folks this week, I was greeted with something of a shrug. As Acheson documents in his book, similar worries about an end to the abundance have been voiced for decades now -- and until they come true, there doesn't seem to be much point in not harvesting the available bounty, given that there's little to no indication that lobstering is exhausting it.

This leaves the Maine (and Canadian) lobster industry with another interesting challenge: how to find enough buyers for all those lobsters so that prices don't collapse. As you can see from the chart below, they've mostly succeeded:

Holding Steady(ish)

Real Maine wholesale lobster prices, per pound*

Sources: Maine Department of Marine Resources, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Adjusted using gross domestic product price index.

Affluent Chinese diners have been one reason. This January, five chartered 747s full of live lobsters flew from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to China to supply Chinese New Year feasts. Maine's lobsters tend to make the voyage less dramatically, in regularly scheduled flights from Boston, but $27 million worth of them were shipped to China in 2016.

The national and even global spread of the lobster roll has also helped a lot. I came to Maine on a trip organized by Luke's Lobster, 2 a fast-casual restaurant chain that now has 21 "shacks" in the U.S. and eight more scheduled to open this year, along with six licensed locations in Japan. Founder Luke Holden was an investment banker in New York when he and former food writer Ben Conniff opened the first restaurant in the East Village in 2009, but he's also the son of a Maine lobsterman who owned the state's first lobster-processing plant. 3

Luke's Lobster now has its own plant in Saco, Maine, that processes between 4 and 5 percent of the state's lobster harvest. Processing, in this case, means cooking and picking the meat out of the claws and knuckles for Luke's lobster rolls 4 while cleaning and freezing the raw tails and clawless "bullet" lobsters for sale to restaurants, groceries and such.

Holden's father, Jeff, says that tails used to sell for much more than claw meat. Now lobster rolls, for which tail meat is generally too chewy, have flipped the price equation.

All in all, it's a fascinating tale of adaptation, marketing and lobster logistics. There is one big catch, though, beyond the vague fears that the lobsters can't be this abundant forever. It's that the bait used to lure the lobsters into traps -- herring -- isn't as abundant as they are. Herring stocks along the Maine coast haven't collapsed as some other fisheries have, but the catch has fallen in recent years, to 77 million pounds in 2016 from 103 million in 2014 and more than 150 million some years in the 1950s and 1960s.

On average, it takes about a pound of herring to catch a pound of lobster. Last year, Maine's lobster harvest was 130 million pounds. To make up the difference, says Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, they've been buying herring from Canada and Massachusetts and experimenting with other bait such as ocean perch and tuna heads.

Even with all that, herring prices have quadrupled over the past 15 years. Steve Train of Long Island, Maine, whose lobster boat I went out on Wednesday morning, estimated that a hypothetical lobsterman who brings in 40,000 pounds of lobster a year (more than the state average but less than Train usually gets) spends $40,000 to $50,000 a year on bait. After that, fuel, labor and other costs, "a guy landing 40,000 pounds a year is maybe making $45,000 a year."

This is Maine, where that, coupled with a spouse's income (Train is married to a teacher), can pay for a quite comfortable lifestyle. But even the greatest lobster boom in history still isn't exactly making the lobstermen rich.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. They're not all men, but they're almost all men, and their trade group is called the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

  2. Bloomberg LP paid my way, though!

  3. Holden wanted to call the restaurant "Overboard Lobster," but Conniff insisted on Luke's.

  4. They've also just added a machine that squeezes the meat out of the lobsters' spindly legs -- my favorite part -- for inclusion in the rolls.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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