Cheap lobster kind of a shell game

Jerry Theiler tends to the lobster tank at Sailor Jerry's Seafood in the Fort Trumbull section of New London on Friday.
Jerry Theiler tends to the lobster tank at Sailor Jerry's Seafood in the Fort Trumbull section of New London on Friday. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

If you've browsed the seafood department at a local supermarket recently, you're probably thinking that these are good days for lobster lovers. Both Shop Rite and Stop & Shop are running specials for Maine lobsters at $5.99 per pound.

Local wholesalers say the source of the price decline is Maine, where an abundance of soft-shell lobster has driven down prices.

"That's the way it is," said Robert Mayer, head of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. "There are huge numbers of soft-shell lobster - so many that the price is relatively low - and you're sort of at the edge of where they ship."

Mayer said he has seen lobster being sold as low as $3.50 a pound in Maine. He also saw a stunning deal while in Canada recently.

"They were selling all-you-can-eat Maine lobsters for $24.95," he said.

But local lobstermen and wholesalers who purchase lobsters caught from Connecticut and Rhode Island waters say buyer beware when dealing with soft shells from Maine.

"In some regards we're getting a higher price because our product is much better than what's coming out of Maine right now," said Mike Theiler, a Waterford lobsterman and vice president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen's Association.

A soft-shell lobster is one that has recently shed its shell to grow a larger one. A lobster in that state is weakened, said Bob Mitchell, owner of Champlin's Seafood in Narragansett, R.I., "and produces less meat. Soft shells are also harder to ship and demand a lower price."

"They are putting some on the wholesale market that are low quality," he said. "The yield of the meat from the lobster goes down when they're a soft shell."

John Tarasevich, purchaser at Clipper Seafood in Narragansett, said he only buys lobsters caught along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coastline.

"You get what you pay for," he said. "If you go to a local, quality fish market, you will pay more."

A survey of local clam shacks and seafood restaurants found lobster rolls ranging in price from $8.50 at Kelly's on the Bank in New London to $19.25 at S&P Oyster Co. in Stonington.

"They're super psyched," baker Matt Potter said of customers at Kelly's on the Bank. "They're completely jazzed. Eight-fifty for a lobster roll is a great deal."

Some other local lobster roll prices include $14.95 at Sea Swirl in Mystic, $15.25 at Captain Scott's in New London and $17.50 at the Fisherman Restaurant of Noank.

As for the soft-shell Maine lobsters, Mayer, at the University of Maine, says supply is outstretching demand because of environmental and market forces.

"It could be climate change because they started shedding early, about six weeks ahead of time," he said. "There's also a relationship with the Canadian lobster processors. They had most of what they needed earlier so they're not buying as much. … So we're seeing low prices everywhere around Maine."

a.nunes@theday.com

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