Once considered a poor person’s protein, lobsters now have a reputation as an expensive delicacy.
With a two-pound lobster costing more than $100 at a Washington, DC restaurant in early 2022, the escalating cost of shipping these crustaceans to distant destinations has led some establishments to remove them from their menus.
Not easy to cultivate and requiring a long time to grow, lobsters pose many problems when getting to market.
Indeed, many larger — and quite expensive — lobsters that reach the dinner table may be older than the people eating them.
Here are 10 reasons that lobster is so expensive.
Why Is Lobster So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. Raising Lobster Is Difficult
Considering the popularity of lobster, one might wonder why efforts at harvesting lobster in farms have not increased.
After all, the fish farming industry has rapidly expanded in recent years.
Nearly half of the fish consumed throughout the world — including a substantial tonnage of tuna, trout, cod, halibut and salmon — are raised in artificially created “aquafarm” environments.
With nearly one-third of fish stocks in the world overexploited, lobster would seem to be a perfect candidate to grow and proliferate in underwater industrial animal farms.
But lobsters remain a “completely wild fishery.”
Why is this the case?
The short answer is the lengthy amount of time required for lobsters to grow large enough to harvest.
Lobsters require almost seven years to reach viability as a food source.
No fishing enterprise can afford to wait seven years for their investment to reach market size, and only weigh about one pound at that point.
Minimum market-size lobsters measure less than four inches, far from the oversized crustacean one sees swimming in a tank at a swank restaurant.
In addition to the time required for them to become edible, farming these crustaceans does have other complications.
While they grow at a very slow pace, they consume a lot and face high mortality rates before they reach viability.
There are plans for a commercial lobster farm in Asia, but they plan to raise the spiny lobster, not the American lobster.
2. Overharvesting And Decline In Numbers
The market scarcity of lobsters today is a recent phenomenon.
For thousands of years, Native Americans considered the lobsters that piled up on the Atlantic coast a great resource for fertilizing crops.
They used to gather the lobsters, bury them in nearby soil, and watch the plants grow.
Lobsters also served as a readily available protein for Indians who lived close to the Atlantic.
They would wrap the lobsters in seaweed and bake them over flames and hot rocks.
Lobsters may have been the earliest menu item at a long-ago North Atlantic “clambake.”
Early European colonists noticed the abundance of lobsters in coastal waters and along the shoreline.
Before the 1700s, the constant availability of lobsters led colonists to view this food source as a “poor man’s protein.”
Using boats known as smacks that had tanks with holes, trappers began to gather lobsters commercially by the late 1700s.
Trapping became a more popular way to gather lobster along the Maine coast by the mid-1800s.
Although lobster hauls became a part of the economy, the abundance of these crustaceans left them with a less than flattering food nickname: “cockroaches of the sea.”
Well into the 1800s, this cheap and plentiful protein frequently found its way onto the plates of children, prisoners, and slaves.
These “cockroaches” became upscale by the 1880s.
Growing demand and diminishing lobster supplies during the emerging Industrial Revolution and urbanization of New England transformed this seafood into a well-desired commodity.
Today, coastal Maine fishers harvest 83% of the lobster cultivated in American waters.
While spiny lobster is found in Asian waters and off the coast of Florida, those crustaceans lack the large claws that make Maine lobster a popular delicacy today.
Consumption of lobster soared during the 20th century, especially after World War II.
In the new millennium, the setting of lobster prices has become a complex numbers game that affects many parties.
These include those who harvest the live lobsters, the transportation industry that delivers them to markets and restaurants, those entities that sell lobster to their customers, and the consumers who enjoy them.
As lobster supplies have diminished, catching enough to satisfy consumer demand has become more of a challenge.
This labor-intensive process requires crews to search for fewer lobsters in a wider area.
Market prices have climbed to astronomical levels in the last few years.
Regulations ensure that smaller lobsters return to the sea to grow.
Larger lobsters, considered great breeders, also remain in the water.
3. Fewer Harvested This Year
Similar to any plant or animal food source, the availability of lobster influences price levels.
In July 2021, sticker shock hit many restaurants as the price of live lobster soared.
Some restaurants that have touted lobster on the menu for years quietly removed this high-end staple.
As live lobsters went from the boat to restaurants, those who harvested them along the Maine coast had difficulty replenishing their stock.
The lobster catch continued to decline into early 2022.
This happened in part because the Canadian lobster season began two weeks later than usual.
Crews checking lobster traps have widened the area covered to bring these expensive delicacies ashore.
While they may roam under the waters a couple of miles from shore some years, at other times, boats must travel 20 or more nautical miles to find lobster colonies.
The collective noun used to describe a group of lobsters is either a pod or a risk.
How appropriate it is that the word ‘risk’ describes a group of lobsters, a sea creature that is at risk from overharvesting.
Another reason for the limited harvest and more expensive prices involves sustainability.
If crews overharvest lobster today, this delicacy may disappear from our plates for good.
Rules have also changed because some of the ropes used for lobster traps threaten young whales in the North Atlantic.
Maine’s regulations to conserve lobsters for future generations require individual lobster cultivators to carry a permit, operate their own boat, and be on the boat at the time of harvest.
These regulations prevent large conglomerates from decimating the species.
Self-enforcing of maximum and minimum size limits while out on boats, and making notches on the fins of those with many eggs to protect the species and ensure young lobsters continue to populate the waters, are important responsibilities of permit holders.
The amount harvested and regulations to ensure the future of the species along coastal waters have led to higher prices.
Those who want to harvest Maine lobsters need to take a number.
The waiting list for a lucrative lobster-fishing permit is quite long.
4. Lobster Tastes Best If Cooked Alive
Unlike most seafood, lobster meat does not freeze well.
Rubbery and tough when frozen or if cooked after it has died, the best way to enjoy lobster is when the crustacean is cooked alive.
Lobsters host a lot of bacteria within their shelly enclosures.
Once they perish, lobsters quickly spoil and the bacteria within them proliferate.
An enzyme in its body starts to deteriorate the meaty flesh inside soon after a lobster perishes.
If not cooked immediately after its death, the lobster meat will become inedible and may make anyone eating it sick.
Even waiting a few hours before preparing a dead lobster may lead to a lobster dinner that leaves the diner with a bellyache.
This explains the presence of live lobsters in tanks at many markets, fancy grocers, and fancier restaurants.
Live lobsters cost more than a few pretty pennies at a seafood market or grocer.
The cost has led many to rely on a restaurant for their hot lobster meal.
Cooking lobster at home requires some confidence, especially since spending a small fortune on a rubbery meal is far from appealing.
Learning to cook a lobster is similar to baking a fancy crafted bread, but much more expensive.
If it heats too long, the rubbery or tough meat inside will be tough to eat.
Keep a timer nearby, avoid any distractions, and watch the shell turn red.
For those uncomfortable with tossing a crawling crustacean into a boiling pot, making a restaurant reservation is a better alternative.
5. Processing Lobster Is Difficult
Commercial processing of lobster requires a lot of labor to separate the meat from the shell.
The fleshy insides can be removed either before or after the lobster is cooked.
For lobsters not sold in the grocery, restaurant, or seafood market, the processing involves a different approach than dropping a live lobster into a boiling pot.
The most important and timely step of processing this lobster involves separating the meat from the shell.
If cooked before removing it from the shell, the meat often toughens after packaging and before it gets to your dinner table.
Since removing the meat when it is raw is preferred, some Canadian processing companies apply high water pressure to wash away the shells from the fresh, uncooked meat, before packaging it.
Most processing plants in the United States cook the lobsters, place them on a table, and have workers remove the hot flesh from the tails, knuckles, and claws.
They sometimes separate the always-popular tails, keeping them raw, and flash-freezing them with liquid nitrogen.
These processes require all hands on deck as the lobsters hit the table, since a machine cannot remove the very expensive meat as efficiently as human hands.
6. Labor Shortages In Critical Areas
Labor shortages affect many areas of the lobster industry.
A need for workers at processing and wholesale facilities in many areas of the United States has led to the increase in the cost of seafood.
North Atlantic lobster joined scallops, squid, king crab, blue swimming crab, snow crab, and Chilean sea bass as seafood commodities that experienced the most substantial price increase in mid-2021.
Although there is no shortage of fishers harvesting crustaceans from traps in the water, they cannot get needed supplies.
Maine-based businesses that supply traps and other equipment failed to meet the needs of lobster trappers in late 2021.
Trapmakers cancelled the orders of those who harvest lobsters, asking them to use older traps for at least another year.
Labor shortages persist in 2022.
Industry leaders have sounded the alarm, reminding Mainers of the impact of lobster harvesting on the state’s economy.
As a lack of workers raises the price of Maine lobster, those harvesting along Canada’s Prince Edward Island face similar challenges.
In 2020, boats brought nearly one-thousand pounds of lobster to harbor some days.
Buyers accepted only 600-700 pounds, since they had no workers to process the meat.
Relying on temporary foreign workers to do this unpleasant work, this labor shortage has affected the Canadian lobster industry for years, leading to high prices for the lobsters that actually made it to market.
7. High Demand Here
The price of lobster has escalated in the last few years.
Such price fluctuations are nothing new to the Maine lobster industry.
No longer considered a fertilizer or cheap protein, these one-time “cockroaches of the sea” have been transformed into a high-end dining option.
Although restaurants usually count lobster as their highest priced item, the wholesale market price that those harvesting the lobsters get for their catch ebbs and flows with fluctuations similar to the tides of the Bay of Fundy.
Wholesalers paid nearly $6 per pound for Maine lobster in 2005.
This price dipped by half in 2009, dropping to $2.20 a pound by the summer of 2013.
The price has soared since then.
Part of the reason lobsters remain expensive is independent of market forces.
Instead, it involves human psychology and the sense of how price reflects “value.”
Studies dating back to the 1940s reveal that if a person cannot determine an item’s value before they purchase it, they assume a correlation exists between quality and price.
Thus, even when wholesale prices drop, restaurants have kept the price of lobster high so their customers would think they offered the best catch available.
Discounting lobster sends the wrong signal, according to this belief.
Customers wanting the highest quality might assume cheaper lobster is inferior.
Even if the wholesale price plummets again, dropping the price paid at the market or restaurant might lead to people enjoying lobster less, thinking they have received a poor product.
Keeping lobster at the top end of the menu or advertising “Market Price” gives this former “water cockroach” an exclusive taste.
8. Growing Demand Elsewhere
While many Mainers may see the lobster industry as a local entity, the catches harvested along Maine’s waters reach distant shorelines.
The American and Canadian lobster industry in the North Atlantic has a global reach.
As an appreciation for this delicacy has spread throughout the world, the demand in faraway places has raised lobster prices close to home.
In recent years, China has started to import larger quantities of lobster.
The expansion of the Chinese middle class during the last decade has led to a dramatic increase in lobster consumption.
These crustaceans are often considered a delicacy perfect for celebrating the Lunar New Year.
During the first eleven months of 2021, China imported over 13.2 million pounds of American lobster.
Despite shipping logistics challenges caused by coronavirus shutdowns, this represented a 6% increase over the same period in 2020.
Even if lobsters have difficulty getting into China in the near future, they continue to make it into boiling pots in restaurants in the European Union and other distant destinations.
9. Logistics Of Getting The Lobster To You
Unless one lives along the coast of Maine or nearby areas of New England, that fresh lobster swimming in the nearby tank has traveled a long distance to get there.
In most cases, lobsters shipped to distant locations are kept alive for the journey.
Their trip requires complicated logistics to keep them moist and cool.
They may travel by vehicle as far as New York, but board an airplane if they go much farther than that.
The lobsters require careful storage to keep them alive during this transitional time.
They do not have to remain submerged in water during transport, though gel packs or ice packs and wet wrappings are helpful to keep them alive for their travels and their destination in a distant saltwater aquarium.
A single lobster making it to California may cost more than $40 in the best of circumstances.
Some may not survive the flight, and most of them get placed in a boiling pot as soon as possible.
The already-challenging journey has become more difficult since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Irregular airline schedules and a lack of drivers created new obstacles in 2020 and 2021.
Although conditions have started to improve, labor shortages and supply chain issues continue to complicate the process of getting Maine lobsters to other parts of the country or overseas destinations.
10. Supply Chain Issues
Since most lobsters pass through many hands to get from the Atlantic coastline to a dinner plate, the same supply chain issues that affect so many other commodities have led to price increases for lobster meat.
That lobster roll that used to cost a few dollars now goes for nearly $20.
The “Market Price” for the lobster on the restaurant’s menu may come with a financial shock.
When seeing the lobsters crawling on top of each other in small saltwater aquariums at a nearby fancy grocery store or fish market, one might wonder if this is the best place to purchase their lobsters.
Getting them straight off the boat would be best.
And certainly possible, if one lives along the New England coast and has connections.
For the rest of us, satisfying our taste for a freshly-steamed lobster requires us to put faith in the supply chain.
The same escalating prices that put fewer lobsters on our plates affect other coastal delicacies as well.
King crab, lobsters, and other favorite high-end foods will remain expensive into the foreseeable future.
Even if record retail prices lower a bit or wholesale prices tank once again, expect to keep paying more for the “cockroaches of the sea” harvested and brought ashore!