ELLSWORTH, Maine — This is a time of year when live lobster dealers throughout the state hope to see a lot of red and green, and not just because they are popular Christmas colors.
An increase in lobster exports, and high demand in Europe in particular during the holiday season, are expected to result in a lot of live lobster being shipped out of Maine this month and a lot of green revenue coming back in.
The heaviest lobster landings in Maine occur each year between early July and the end of October, during the state’s annual tourism season, with August often being the most productive month. But November consistently is a more productive month than any in the winter and spring, and the popularity of fancy meals during the holidays helps sustain live lobster sales toward the end of each calendar year.
According to Matt Jacobson, the new executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, this increase in popularity is especially notable in England, which he said has had a growing appetite for homarus americanus in the past few years. Jacobson said there recently has been a small “explosion” of restaurants in London that feature Maine lobster rolls on their menus.
“There seems to be a budding trend” of Maine lobster becoming a holiday feast in England, Jacobson said, adding that he wished Maine’s marketing efforts could take credit for it.
“We haven’t done any work over there,” he said with a chuckle. But he said that the collaborative could try to use its modest budget to fund some inexpensive social media efforts in places like London or Shanghai, China, where demand for Maine lobster is rising but advertising costs are high.
Christina Lemieux, who grew up in a lobstering family in Cutler but now works for an ad agency in London, wrote last week in an email that she has done market research on several new eateries in London that feature lobster, most of which serve lobster rolls in a casual setting. She indicated she has found mixed results but that there is no doubt that lobster is enjoying a “boom” in the English metropolis (which she wrote about in her BDN blog this past summer).
In a guest column she recently wrote for a newsletter published by the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance, Lemieux indicated that the growing popularity of North American lobster in England and other European countries is linked to the continent’s tradition of eating seafood during the holidays.
“Of the $50 million dollars of U.S. lobster Italy imported in 2013, more than one-fifth of that lobster was delivered in the month of December,” Lemieux wrote. “In 2013, France imported $35 million of U.S. lobster. More than a third of that lobster was delivered in December, prior to the holiday celebrations.”
The demand in Europe during the holidays even affects dealers who don’t ship overseas. The spike of lobster shipped across the ocean means there’s less to go around in the states, which helps to boost prices charged by retailers and wholesalers, industry officials indicated.
Matt McAleney, general manager of New Meadows Lobster in Portland, said last Friday that the holiday season means long days in the loading bays for anyone who deals in live lobster, regardless of where they send it.
“It’s ‘you-know-what’ to the wall,” he said of the December rush.
McAleney said the family enterprise has an ample customer base in the states, so it no longer ships lobster out of the country. Still, filling orders at the end of the year consumes nearly every waking moment of New Meadows’ staff.
“I get to eat Christmas Eve dinner and spend Christmas day with my family, and then I kiss my kids goodbye and see them on January 2nd,” McAleney said. After that, he joked, he has a few months off that he can devote to playing in impromptu cribbage tournaments.
John Hathaway, owner of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, said demand for the live product is so high this time of year that he shuts his business down for a couple of weeks and reopens in January. Shucks Maine exclusively sells processed lobster, he said, and tries to have all of its December orders filled early in the month so it doesn’t have to buy lobster at live-market wholesale prices.
“It’s kind of nice, for me,” Hathaway said of not having to work around Christmas and New Year’s.
Pete Daley, who oversees operations for Garbo Lobster at its storage and shipping site in Hancock, said the company has been shipping lobster to Europe for 30 years. Europeans eat far more seafood than Americans, he said, but the vast majority of Garbo’s shipments go to Spain, Italy and France.
In December, when Garbo’s European shipments increase markedly, it sends about 2 million pounds of live lobster across the Atlantic, about the same amount that it distributes throughout the U.S. in the same month. Christmas week, Daley said, Garbo expects to have two days during which it will load more than 100,000 pounds of lobster onto Europe-bound planes.
“Their seafood consumption is huge,” Daley said.
What gets shipped out from Hancock goes by truck to the company’s main shipping facility in Groton, Connecticut, where it then is packaged for air freight out of New York. He said the company sometimes ships out of airports in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, or even Detroit to make sure the lobsters get to Europe in timely fashion.
But shipping a live product overseas can be tricky, Daley said, because freight is the first thing to get bumped off if all the seats are full or if extra fuel is needed because the plane is flying into headwinds. Such delays are rare, he said, but if another flight cannot be found in a few hours, Garbo sometimes sells the cargo to a domestic buyer to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.
“It’s few and far between, but it has occurred,” Daley said of such predicaments. “You have a perishable product, so you have to get it out as soon as possible.”
Some online retailers have been tapping into the seasonal demand by offering discounted prices far lower than the $30 to $50 that many restaurants charge for a cooked lobster entree.
Atwood Lobster of Spruce Head, a subsidiary of Highland Park, Illinois-based Mazzetta Company, has been selling lobster through the wholesaler Costco for the holiday season. The company was offering six lobsters, each weighing one and a quarter pounds, for a total of $95, or about $12.66 per pound. By Friday afternoon, however, the Costco website listed the item as being out of stock and no longer available.
The need to find new markets and to boost demand for Maine lobster has grown as annual harvests in Maine have risen sharply over the past 20 years.
Landings figures compiled by the Maine Department of Marine Resources illustrate the dramatic increase in the amount of lobster that Maine fishermen have hauled in each year since the early 1990s. In the month of August 2013 alone, Maine lobstermen caught nearly 33 million pounds of lobster — more than any annual statewide total prior to 1994. The statewide catch total for all of 2012 was more than 127 million pounds, Maine’s highest yearly total ever.
Fishermen, dealers and others have said the overall volume of landings this year appears to be lower than in 2013, when the statewide haul was just shy of 126 million pounds. But the demand this year appears to have increased slightly, they added, which has helped to keep the dockside price generally above $3 per pound through much of the summer and fall. An annual average statewide price paid to lobstermen that is more than $3 per pound would be the highest such average since 2011, when it was $3.19 per pound.
In an effort to outpace the rising supply of lobster, industry officials have been focused on boosting the state’s marketing efforts. Last year, the state reorganized the former Maine Lobster Promotion Council into the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative and allocated more money to its efforts to promote the seafood across the country and overseas.
Instead of an annual budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, the industry’s marketing entity is expected to have a budget of $1.5 million in 2015, raised entirely from state fees on lobster fishing, distribution and processing licenses. By 2016, the collaborative is expected to have an annual budget of $2.25 million — which, though it is a significant increase, still is much less than what other marketing boards spend each year on promoting other kinds of food, according to Jacobson
“We’ll run out money [next year] way before we run out of good ideas,” he said.
About $1 million of that 2015 budget is expected to go to a New York-based firm that just last week the collaborative announced it has hired to develop and implement a global marketing strategy for Maine lobster. Weber Shandwick will “lead public relations, advertising, digital and social media for the [state marketing collaborative],” officials indicated in a prepared statement.
Jacobson said that the marketing firm will be tasked with compiling comprehensive data on all aspects of what happens to Maine lobster after it is trucked away from the state’s coastal piers, some of which the collaborative has been working to track down over the past year.
The information it collects should help inform the industry where money spent promoting the brand of Maine lobster will have the most significant results, Jacobson said. The fact that Maine lobster is catching on in London’s culinary scene without any marketing campaign, he said, indicates that there is a lot more potential to boost demand globally with a campaign that is well researched, thought out, and executed.
“The data is really going to drive this,” Jacobson said. “That [Maine lobster] brand has some power.”