Prices paid to local lobstermen have hit a record low for this time of year -- even as the catch has hit record highs.
The hefty harvests in June fell prey to the laws of the marketplace:
Boat prices dropped, with Monday’s $2.75-per-pound at the docks equaling a low in 2009, although that $2.75 came in August ,when higher demand from processors drove down the price, said experts.
Processors are not buying here yet, and for July, the price is the lowest in at least five years, according to Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association in Scituate. That’s an alarm for fishermen, who need $4 a pound to break even, he added.
Yet, what “should be,” as Adler put it, a lure for consumers to buy the crustaceans in Gloucester is not necessarily so.
Some dealers and grocers offer bargains; many have not changed at all, pricing their lobsters at three, nearly four times what the fishermen are paid per pound. Restaurant prices, in general, have not fluctuated, either.
Because of unusually warm water in the spring, landings of new-shell lobsters, which are too vulnerable to ship long distances but make up perhaps half a catch, came early – too early for the tourist trade that generally gobbles them up, said Adler of the Lobstermen’s Association. “Softies can be eaten just with your hands, and taste great, very sweet,” said Adler.
The boon catch was also too early for purchases by the large processors in Canada, who like the soft shells but have inventory brimming with frozen hard shells to sell in bulk to casinos and cruise ships later in the year.
“The processors haven’t even called,” he said.
Adler suggested that a painful $2.75 might bring in the big boys from the north, somewhat easing the immediate glut.
“There’s too much inventory,” said Craig Babinski, owner of Rockport Lobster on Commercial Street, “and nobody knows the future. Lobsters shed six to eight weeks early and we had all this soft shell when we didn’t need it.”
The outlook for autumn, when about 75 percent of a lobsterman’s catch is landed, is wary at best.
Joey Ciaramitaro, co-owner of Captain Joe and Sons in Rocky Neck, who sells to distributors like Ipswich Shellfish Group., the leading direct delivery seafood processor and distributor in the country, said “we’re day to day.” He declined to cite his prices, which others in the business said can be a bellwether for the city.
“June was the best catch in maybe 40 years. I’m bringing them in one door and they go out the other,” said Ciaramitaro.
“My poor tired body can attest to the banner year,” he said, “with the volume more than making up” for the price per pound to the fishermen. “But no one knows where we’ll be in late August or the fall.” he added.
Industry analyst Adler was a bit less sanguine, characterizing the market as “moderate.”
“There’s still good demand from consumers,” he said. “Fourth of July week was OK,” he said, with boat prices in Gloucester at $3 a pound, and as high as $3.75 in Boston and the South Shore. Last year’s prices at this time were closer to $4 here and $5 in Boston.
Most markets pay different rates for soft or hard shells; Gloucester pays one.
“The truth is, demand is down,” said Monte Rome, co-owner of Intershell Seafood Corp. on Commercial Street, one of the leading air shippers in the country. “I think this may be a fairly permanent reaction” to the financial crash of ‘08, he said. “Markets should grow, and this one isn’t. I feel the perception is lobster is a high-priced item and people say ‘we don’t need it.’ The European market has definitely dwindled.”
As of Monday morning, Rome was buying at $3 a pound, cut from $3.25 the previous week, and selling new-but-firm shells at $5 a pound, hard shells at $5-6. The price to restaurants was $4.85 for firm, he said.
Allowing he had not done a survey, industry spokesman Adler said a bright aspect “should be” that the price to consumers is low – and lowest here.
On Monday, Market Basket at Gloucester Crossing was selling local lobsters for $5 a pound. At Shaw’s, they were $6 pound, while $10 at Stop and Shop, the same as at Turner’s Seafood Market on Smith Street.
Restaurants do not seem to have fluctuated. A one-pounder at Gloucester House on Rogers Street is $16, a twin 2 1/2-pound special is $25 – unchanged for months. At Lobsta Land off Route 128, a one-pounder fetches $22, also stable, and it’s ditto for the Topside Grill on Rogers Street’s usual summer special: $14 for a one pounder.
Nancy Gaines is a regular Times correspondent and a veteran writer and editor of both Boston-based and national publications.