There is good news for consumers, but bad for struggling lobstermen: Prices for the delicacy are cheap again this season, and could stay that way.
Massachusetts lobstermen were paid about $3.74 per pound last week, just four cents more than a year ago, when prices hit a record low. That means supermarket prices of $6.99 to $9.99 a pound, depending on size.
Get used to the bargains, the experts say, because climate change, in the form of warmer oceans, and fewer predators are likely to mean a plentiful lobster supply for years to come. On top of that, looser regulations on the crustacean’s predators — cod, halibut, and hake — are creating bigger lobster populations.
“You’re seeing this explosion in catches,” said Rick Wahle, a professor at Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine. “You remove those large fish from the population, and lobsters outgrow their predators faster than they used to, and it allows them to exploit habitats they didn’t used to.”
When lobsters shed their shells — a process known as molting — it signals the start of the US lobster season. New England lobsters typically begin molting around July 4, but global warming is making them molt earlier. Last season, lobsters shed their shells at the end of May, kicking off the American season before the Canadian season had ended. The result: a record low for lobster prices because of the overabundant supply.
“It’s like a Catch-22,” said Bob Glenn, chief marine fisheries biologist for the state of Massachusetts. “They need to catch more lobsters to do more volume and stay in business, but when they put more lobsters on the market the price goes down.”
Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said lobstermen need to get about $4 a pound to break even. Lately, sales are yielding between $3.50 and $4 a pound.
For Boston lobsterman Bernie Feeney, the depressed market is making life hard.
“We’re getting the same prices we got nearly 30 years ago with 500 percent increase on overhead,” said Feeney, noting higher prices for gas, equipment, and labor. “There are many days that it costs me money just to go out.”
The Fourth of July kicks off the busiest period for lobster sales in New England and signals where prices will land through the summer.
Scott Thayer, a manager of Joe’s Lobster and Fish Mart in Sandwich, said all indications are that low consumer prices will remain. Joe’s sells lobsters for $6.99 to $8.99 a pound.
“Lobster is going to be inexpensive all season,” he said.
At Burke’s Seafood in Quincy, prices are down from as much as $12 a pound earlier this year, when bad weather had pushed them up.
“We’re getting a lot of phone calls,” said Matt Burke, whose parents own the market. “And we’re definitely filling up the tank.”
Katie Carey, 39, stopped in to pick up a two-pound lobster, priced at $9.99 a pound, to celebrate her birthday.
“The price is fine,” Carey said. “My parents have been coming here since I was a kid, and lobster had always been a special-occasion thing growing up.”
With lobster prices so reasonable, will the crustacean lose its cachet?
At Shaw’s, a lobster up to 1.25 pounds sells for $7.99 per pound. That’s the same price as farm-raised boneless tilapia and farm-raised shrimp.
Even the price of hard-shell lobster meals — the highest grade — on Legal Sea Foods’ menus has dropped, from about $33.95 for a pound and a quarter in mid-May to $29.99 now. Pound-and-a-half lobsters have dropped about three dollars to $37.
“It’s become an affordable luxury now,” said Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods. “There’s no question.”
But for some consumers, the prices are still too high.
Betty Noonan of South Boston bought a pound of scrod for $6 at Shaw’s. She said lobster, even at $7.99, is too expensive for the amount of meat you get.
Nonetheless, she feels for people who make their living from the sea.
“I watch the ‘Deadliest Catch’ [TV show] and then go to the fish market and feel guilty for not buying it,” she said. “I mean, look at all they have to do.”