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    China’s appetite for N.E. lobster boosts industry

    Workers at Maine Coast Lobster pack boxes bound for Shanghai. The York, Maine, company is shipping 6 million pounds of lobster to China each year.
    Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
    Workers at Maine Coast Lobster pack boxes bound for Shanghai. The York, Maine, company is shipping 6 million pounds of lobster to China each year.

    YORK, Maine — Somewhere in Shanghai, a Chinese family is delving into a Boston lobster — and paying as much as $100 for the sumptuous meal.

    With a booming economy, the burgeoning middle class in China has developed a taste for the rich meat of the North Atlantic crustacean, known in the Far East as Boston lobster, even though many of them are pulled from the cold waters off of Maine and shipped overseas from Tom Adams’s loading dock in York.

    China has imported some $40 million of the hard red shells, mostly from Maine and Massachusetts, and Adams’s company, Maine Coast Lobster, is booming since he decided to specialize in exporting Maine’s signature seafood.

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    He has increased sales to China and other foreign markets in each of the past two years and invested more than $2 million to expand operations here and create 25 jobs. He is now one of Maine’s largest seafood exporters.

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    Adams and Maine Coast are part of a New England industry that is riding a global wave of rising incomes and growing demand for luxury goods, particularly in China, with more than 600 million people clamoring for consumer goods and a taste of the good life. New England exports of lobsters to China — mostly from Maine and Massachusetts — have quadrupled since 2012, according to Wisertrade.org, a nonprofit research group that tracks international trade. China today accounts for 7.5 percent of the region’s lobster exports, up from 2.5 percent about two years ago.

    Even at $100 in restaurants, North Atlantic lobsters are much cheaper than their competitors, Australian lobsters, which can cost hundreds of dollars. The North Atlantic lobster has another advantage over its Australian cousins — meaty claws — and has have become particularly popular during the Chinese New Year.

    At Intershell International Corp. in Gloucester, Yibing Rome and her 30 employees are taking a breather after a busy month in which they shipped more than 10,000 pounds of lobster to China during the New Year celebrations in Feburary.

    Intershell began selling to China last year, and it’s become a booming business for the 23-year-old company, aided by the increase in nonstop flights to Asia from Logan International Airport. Logan last year launched direct service to Beijing and this year adds nonstop routes to Hong Kong and Shanghai.

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    Intershell ships about 100 cases, or 3,000 pounds of lobsters, a few times each month. Rome attributes the growing market to concerns about pollution in China and a belief by Chinese consumers that lobsters caught off the North American coast are safer and healthier to eat.

    “They trust it when it comes from the United States and Canada,” said Rome. “They say, ‘I want a Boston lobster.’ ”

    In Maine, where lobster is not only a state icon but a $500 million industry, expanding exports has become critical. Record and near-record catches in recent years have glutted the market, driving wholesale prices well below $3 a pound and leaving lobstermen struggling to pay bills and loans — a lobster boat can cost $400,000 — and stay in business.

    Large catches are expected to continue, partly because of the state’s aggressive management of the fishery, partly because of the collapse of stocks of groundfish, such as cod, which preyed on young lobsters and larvae.

    In 2012, wholesale prices nearly touched $2 pound.

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    Jeff Donnell, who has been fishing out of York Harbor for nearly 40 years, said so many lobsters were on the market that he felt lucky to be able to sell his catch. He hoped his boat would make it through the season without needing repairs; replacing an engine can cost $100,000.

    ‘They trust it when it comes from the United Statesand Canada. They say, “I want a Boston lobster.” ’

    “When we’re bringing in a decent price for our catch,” Donnell said, “it allows me to make upgrades, maintain my equipment, put some money in my retirement account.”

    Chinese consumers believe lobsters from North America are free from pollution and are healthier to eat.
    Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
    Chinese consumers believe lobsters from North America are free from pollution and are healthier to eat.

    Following the 2012 glut, the state dramatically increased the budget for promoting lobster, to $2.25 million a year from $350,000, with the aim of building new markets. These efforts coincided with rising incomes in China. Maine lobster exports to China have more than doubled since 2012, to more than $20 million last year from about $8 million.

    The growth of this market has helped prices rebound, said Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, which oversees the promotion effort. The average price of lobster jumped 79 cents a pound last year, to $3.69, according to Maine’s Department of Marine Resources.

    Stephanie Nadeau, owner of the Lobster Co., a wholesaler in Arundel, has shipped lobsters to Asia since the early 1990s, but growth in China has significantly increased her business. In 2009, Nadeau said, she didn’t sell a single lobster to China; last year, the company shipped more than 2 million pounds.

    Prepping and shipping live lobsters is labor-intensive. First they are selected for size and health, then graded. Two dozen lobsters are packed in cardboard boxes, stacked vertically in individual cells, claws up. Wet, blank newsprint is packed alongside the lobsters to maintain humidity levels, and frozen gel packs are placed on top to keep temperatures below 40 degrees.

    Each day, Nadeau sends three trucks to Logan with lobsters bound for Asia. To meet the growing demand, her company recently built a facility in Canada to hold about 120,000 pounds of live lobster.

    Like Nadeau, Adams has made significant investments in order to ship some 6 million pounds of lobster to China each year. He spent $900,000 to install a tank with the capacity to hold 150,000 pounds.

    Adams said exports grew to 40 percent of his Maine Coast Lobster sales last year, from 20 percent in 2012. He expects his company’s exports to reach 55 percent of sales next year, due in large part to China.

    “I’m confident this number will continue to grow,” he said.

    Material from the Associated
    Press was used in this report.
    Deirdre Fernandes contributed.
    Jim Baumer can be reached at jim.baumer@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jbomb62.