It's peak season for lobster and tourism in Maine, yet consumption of the crustacean has fallen to the point where it costs no more than sliced turkey in parts of New England.
A solid harvest and diminished demand from diners adjusting to the weak economy have pushed the retail price of lobster in Maine beneath $6 a pound, tightening the financial squeeze on fishermen struggling with soaring fuel prices.
While fewer locals and tourists overall are spending for lobster dinners, some say the affordability has encouraged them to eat more of the seafood delicacy than usual.
Katina Wetter, who spent more than $100 on gas to drive from Indiana to Portland, Maine, with her family, is counting her pennies while on vacation, but said she definitely won't skimp on the state's signature seafood. “I'd be buying lobsters anyway, but not as many if the prices weren't this low,” Wetter said.
Lobster lovers outside of New England won't notice any change in price, analysts said, because Maine's summertime catch is mostly soft-shelled, and too fragile to ship long distances.
Maine is the nation's lobster breadbasket with a haul last year of 63 million pounds, about 80 percent of the U.S. catch, worth $280 million.
Lobster prices are volatile throughout the year, with the highest prices in winter and spring. They typically decline in summer, when fishermen begin catching lobsters in abundance in the cold waters off Maine's rocky coast.
Retailers agree that prices have fallen more than usual this summer, with prices now about $1 a pound cheaper than last year. The main reason behind the price drop is soft demand – presumably because fewer families are taking summer vacations to Maine and those that are must pay $4 a gallon to get there.
Traffic on the Maine Turnpike – the main highway for people heading into Maine from the Eastern Seaboard – fell by more than 2 percent in June compared with last year, according to the Maine Turnpike Authority.
The going retail price for a small, soft-shell variety of this seafood delicacy is about $5.99 a pound. Larger lobsters and those with hard shells, which have more meat than soft-shells, cost more.
At those prices, lobster costs the same amount as turkey – and less than honey ham – at the deli counter at Hannaford supermarkets, which sells lobster at more than 20 coastal Maine stores.