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Weaker Lobster Landings, Growing Demand Forcing Prices Up

Lucy Towers
23 February 2017, at 12:00am

US - Current lobster prices on the North American market are at the highest they have been in ten years. A combination of weak landings and higher demand has pushed prices up, particularly for lobster meat. Meanwhile, the dispute over a possible ban on imports of live American lobster into the EU continues, reports FAO GLOBEFISH.

The big discussion in the lobster industry, especially in the USA, is the proposed EU ban on imports of US and Canadian live lobsters. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are arguing their case, and disagreeing on alleged findings by each party. Sweden initiated a petition to the EU in March, after 32 American lobsters were found in Swedish waters. The Swedes claim that there is a danger that the American lobsters may spread disease and replace the smaller European lobster if live imports are allowed to continue. If the Swedish petition is successful, American lobster will be listed as an invasive species, and will be banned from imports into all 28 EU member countries.

A congressional delegation from Maine claims it will appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) if the EU sides with Sweden. Canada's Lobster Council has joined the Americans in this disagreement with Sweden and the EU, and both groups are now engaged in talks with the EU. Canada also feels that a ban would seriously hurt Canadian exporters' interests.

In early September, the Scientific Forum on Invasive Species, which includes experts appointed by each EU member state, confirmed the validity of the Swedish scientific risk assessment. This set in motion a broader review, but this will take time, and a conclusion is not expected until next spring at the earliest. Meanwhile, it is expected that both sides will continue to advocate for their position.

During the first half of 2016, EU lobster imports from the USA (for all product forms, including live) amounted to 2 600 tonnes, an increase of about 19 percent. EU imports from Canada increased even more, from 2 000 tonnes during the first half of 2015 to almost 2 600 tonnes during the same period in 2016. For all product forms, total lobster imports into the EU during the first half of 2016 totalled 8 600 tonnes (including all product forms).

Supplies

In the UK, demand for lobster is growing. Lobster is no longer an exclusive dish for the affluent only, but rather becoming a mainstream food. With the growing demand, some have asked whether the UK lobster stocks will be depleted. According to some industry observers there is little reason for worry, as most of the lobsters consumed in the UK are imported from the USA and Canada.

The spring lobster season in Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada, showed poorer landings this year compared to last. Landings dropped by 13.5 percent to 10 700 tonnes. However, tighter supplies led to higher prices, so the value of the catch increased by 22 percent to CAN$148 million (US$113.8 million). The autumn season started on 9 August and ends on 10 October.

In Maine, hard-shell lobsters are in high demand and coupled with a low supply this has resulted in price increases. Landings are down by 50 percent compared with last year, and prices now are up to US$6.50 per lb.
Maine lobster fishers are having problems getting enough herring for bait this year. Maine regulators have indicated that they may make changes to regulations on the East Coast to help improve the situation.

International trade

During the first half of 2016, world imports of lobster increased slightly compared with the same period in 2015. Total imports were 3 percent higher at 58 000 tonnes. The main changes were a 26.6 percent increase in Chinese imports, to 10 000 tonnes, and an 11 percent drop in US imports, to 24 900 tonnes. Practically this entire drop was due to lower Canadian exports to the USA.

The lower landings in PEI and higher prices have changed the processors' choice of product form, according to Seafood.com. US chefs are adapting to the high prices for lobster meat by changing the composition of their menu items that contain lobster. Generally, they aim to offer a lobster dish at a reasonable price, so aim to design meals with a lower lobster content, while still offering lobster as the main ingredient.

In terms of exclusively lobster meat, US imports are the highest they have been in years. Each month from January to June 2016 showed an increase over previous years. Prices for lobster meat have not come down on the US market and instead have only continued to rise in the second quarter, although there were signs of stabilizing import prices in July. For lobster tails, US import prices have been on a steep downward trend since late 2015, but improved significantly during the second quarter of 2016. However, like lobster meat, prices for this product also stabilized in July.

Prices

Lobster prices in North America are at their highest point in ten years, and demand seems to continue to grow. Retail prices on the US East Coast remained high into September, when consumers were paying between US$9.00 and 11.00 per pound for live lobster. Several reasons for the high prices include: weaker landings, growing demand for live products, rising interest from processors of such products as lobster rolls and lobster macaroni and cheese, as well as interest in Asia for North American lobster. Particularly the demand for lobster as a raw material for processed products may keep prices high for some time into the future.

For only lobster meat, prices have increased steadily to record levels over the past year, they now seem to have stabilized, and observers are uncertain about whether they will continue to rise.

In China, the situation is somewhat different. Last year, demand for lobster in China was growing rapidly, driving prices up significantly. Now the slow-down in the Chinese economy seems to have impacted this consumption with demand slowing down considerably and prices decreasing.

The report analyses the market situation over the period January-October 2016