Seafood lovers ‘steak’ their claim to more affordable lobster

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MANCHESTER — With fresh chicken lobsters at $3.99 a pound, Tammy Thibodeau bought 20 for a family cookout held on Wednesday.

Thibodeau was at Market Basket in downtown Manchester on Wednesday with her niece Crystal Wyman, who was visiting from Seattle. They were planning a big family lobster cookout.

Wyman said lobsters are expensive on the West Coast. “It’s something we barely ever get to eat,” she said.

“My husband (Calvin Wyman) actually tried it for the first time over in Maine, so she (Thibodeau) said we could get back and have it for a pretty good deal,” Wyman said.

Thibodeau said afterward that Wednesday’s gathering “was awesome, and we had a great feast.”

Joan Tilton, founder of family-run Defiant Lobster Co. in Hampton, said, “The reason the prices dropped is because lobsters are so plentiful right now,” Her husband, Peter Tilton Sr., and son Peter Tilton Jr. also run the business.

Defiant’s prices ranged from $3.79 a pound for single-claw lobsters, or culls, to $8.99 a pound for hard-shell lobsters of 1.75 pounds or heavier.

The popular chicken lobsters, from 1 pound to just under 1.25 pounds were $3.99 a pound, Tilton said.

Bane for lobstermen

While the low prices are a boon for consumers, they are a bane for lobstermen. In Down East Maine, some lobster boats have been sitting idle, with lobstermen hoping to drive down supply and drive up prices.

But the Kittery, Maine-Portsmouth, N.H., area hasn’t seen boats sitting idle, industry sources say.

Tom Flanigan, president of Seaview Lobster in Kittery, said, “It hasn’t been a situation like some of the areas Down East that have just had no place to go with their lobster catch.

“Locally, prices are low, but the boats have been able to fish. If anything now, it’s really turned into a great opportunity for New England consumers of the soft-shell lobster,” Flanigan said. “We’re selling for $3.99. The last time we were this low was after 9/11, so it’s a great opportunity for people to have lobster, that’s for sure.”

“With the cheap lobsters, business has really picked up,” Peter Tilton Jr. said. He estimates the Hampton business is 25 percent busier this year.

“When the prices are down, it doesn’t hurt the small businesses like myself who are doing retail,” he said. “The fishermen are the ones who are hurt. Their prices are fixed; fuel and bait is a terrible expense for fishermen.”

Steve Nichols, 60, owner of Tinker’s Seafood, sold 800 pounds of lobster in a recent week, he said while unpacking boxes of fresh lobster Thursday morning.

He’d just returned from Taylor Lobster in Kittery, where he bought them at wholesale.

Tinker’s is running a special on eat-in lobster dinners at two for $19.95.

“It gets people thinking,” Nichols said. “Lobster is cheaper than buying steak right now.”

Early season

This year’s soft-shelled lobster season started seven to eight weeks early, “and it’s come on quickly,” said Robert Bayer, director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine.

Compared with a normal run in June, “we were finding lots of soft-shelled lobsters in April,” Peter Tilton Jr. said. “Sometimes you get a second molt, and I think that’s what’s happening, too. The ones that didn’t do it in April are doing it now.”

In a typical year, lobster molting starts on the New Hampshire coast and works its way Northeast, Bayer said. But the molt “started early along the whole coast this year, and there are a lot of these new-shell lobsters.”

The market for lobster is multi-tiered, Bayer said.

“There are several different layers before getting to the consumer,” he said. “The fisherman gets boat price, whatever that happens to be, and the dealer he’s selling to is probably selling to somebody else bigger, and there is a mark-up there. There is probably one more layer before it gets to retail or consumers.”

Bayer, who holds a doctorate, is also a professor of animal and veterinary sciences at the University of Maine. The Lobster Institute has an advisory board with representatives from Long Island Sound to Newfoundland, he said.

Outlook for fall

The lobster catch seems to have dropped to average levels in the last two weeks, Defiant’s Peter Tilton Jr. said.

“There isn’t an infinite supply of lobsters, so if they’re all coming early, you aren’t going to get so many late.

“I’m still assuming prices will be reasonable through the fall,” Tilton said. “That’s the message that needs to get out to our New England customers — fall is a great time to buy lobsters. Don’t stop buying them after Labor Day when the school buses start to roll.”

But the Lobster Institute’s Bayer said there is no way of predicting whether this year’s early lobster haul will mean an extended season or an early end to a bumper catch. “I’m asking the same question,” he said.

The chicken lobsters sold at this time of year are soft-shelled and cannot be shipped as far as the hard-shelled lobsters caught in the winter.

In winter, hard-shelled lobsters can be shipped as far as Europe or Asia and will make the trip alive, Bayer said.

But fresh from molting, soft-shelled lobsters caught now don’t ship well, making shipment to places beyond New York risky.

In the winter, lobsters can run to $6.99 a pound and average $5.99 over the course of a year, Market Basket manager Peter Gulezian said at the store at 460 Elm St. in Manchester. Meanwhile, the $3.99-a-pound price at Market Basket will stay for at least one more week. “It’s not that this is unheard of, but we’ve been able to have this price for quite some time, and it’s been working out well,” Gulezian said. July and August are the peak months for lobster sales, he said.

Lobster and steamers

Gulezian said lobster sales also boost sales of steamer clams, corn and butter. “People get lobsters and steamers,” he said.

Market Basket is going into its fourth week of $3.99 lobster. Despite promoting it only in-store for three weeks, Gulezian said, there are “still new customers coming in all the time. Response has been overwhelming.” The store will also steam the lobsters for customers. This week, the special is included in the store’s flier.

“We’ve exceeded projections,” he said.

Customer preference for bigger or smaller lobsters varies, he said.

Defiant founder Joan Tilton said, “I started in 1980 with two buckets of lobster and a refrigerator.” She was working as a nurse at Exeter Hospital and figured that after paying for uniforms and day care, she’d be better off working for herself.

Al Camacho of Manchester was lured back to Market Basket on Wednesday for a second day in a row of lobster. “I had it yesterday, they’re good,” he said. Camacho moved to Manchester two years ago from Maryland.

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