Up until the beginning of the nineteenth century, lobsters were everywhere. They washed up along the New England coast like so much satanic jetsam, scuttling around and snapping their claws—and because no one bothered to kill and eat them in large numbers, most were huge. They weighed three to six pounds on average, which indicated that they were somewhere between fifteen and thirty years old.
In the mid-1800s, tinned lobster, served cold, became a kind of cheap salad-bar fixing across the country. This drove up demand, which drove the big lobsters to extinction, leaving lobstermen to harvest the smaller one- and two-pounders that are still the industry’s bread and butter today. Around the turn of the century, local restaurateurs in Maine started serving whole, boiled lobsters to rich summer vacationers as a marquee main dish. Thus the image of the modern lobster was born, a natural accompaniment to tuxedos, top hats, caviar, and Champagne: fancy, steaming, bright red on a silver platter. The advent of refrigerated shipping spread the trend to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
This new wave of high-class demand outstripped supply, even as lobstermen pulled up smaller and smaller catches. The price of lobster soared, quadrupling from 1889 to 1898, and more than doubling again between 1904 and 1924. The Depression brought things back down a notch, with lobster bottoming out in ’39 at $2.55 per pound (in 2015 dollars) and being shipped as rations to U.S. soldiers fighting overseas during World War II. But once the economy picked up again, the price of lobster was back at luxury levels. In 1975, it peaked at $7.08 per pound at the wharf. Prices stayed between $4.00 and $5.75 from the eighties to the aughts.
From 2011 to 2012, the lobster harvest suddenly jumped from 104 million pounds to 127 million pounds—even with fewer traps in the water. The best theory is that a freakishly warm year triggered an early-lobster-growth explosion (the animals grow extra fast if the water’s warmer). This also prompted them to shed their carapaces early (meaning they were soft-shelled), and therefore harder to transport without dying. The result? A dockside price of $2.77 per pound in 2012, the lowest price since 1939, and the second-cheapest lobster since the dawn of the twentieth century. If you wanted to buy a lobster at a supermarket, you could get one for about four bucks per pound in New England.
In 2015, lobster prices are at a respectable $3.69 per pound at the dock. What does this mean for a lobsterman today? I talked to one, Sonny Beal, who lives on Beals Island, in Maine (which is actually named after his ancestors). He talked me through the basic economics of how a lobster gets from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the inside of a buttery, griddled roll.
Lobster traps are basically just crates made of wood or rubberized metal with complicated bits of rope webbing inside that create a kind of funnel—if you look at a trap from the side, the webbing is shaped like an hourglass—and one end open to the water. You put bait in the side farther from the opening; lobsters walk in to eat it, but they’re usually too dumb to walk out (though many actually do). Each trap is attached to a rope that leads to a buoy. Each lobsterman has his own buoy colors, and spends the day driving boats around, pulling traps up to see if they have any lobsters of legal size, replacing the bait, and then dropping them back down. It is strenuous and boring work.
On an average day in the summer, lobster high season, Sonny will check about four hundred of his traps. In the process, he burns through fifty gallons of fuel, which, the day I visited, was going for $2.40 a gallon (though it can increase). He uses a dozen five-gallon buckets of herring as bait, bought for $12 each. He buys both the fuel and the bait from the lobsterman co-op vendor at the wharf—and at the end of the day, sells his catch to the buyer at the co-op. On a good day in the summer, he’ll pull in one thousand to two thousand pounds of lobster. He and his two crewmates split any profit.
What does any of this have to do with you? Very little. Sonny doesn’t decide the price his lobster sells for; he believes it’s the product of a long line of negotiations stretching from wholesalers and trade associations in Massachusetts and New York up through processors in Portland and the co-op’s buyer, the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, and ending at the co-op itself. Nor does he have anything to do with the price you pay at the market.
The actual price of lobster at the dock is just one small part of a big equation. There’s the cost of transit and processing—lobsters are weird, complicated little things. Not to mention overhead and profit for the middlemen and grocery store or restaurant. The cost of rent at a New York restaurant is enough to make what Sonny pays in gas and herring almost irrelevant. Still, it’s nice to know that at the beginning of this long and complex chain there’s a guy scooting around an island, pulling up traps by hand.