Lobster prices clawing higher

The days of cheap lobster are over. From Maine to Monterey Park, consumers are shelling out more for the delicacy.

Wholesale prices are up about 20% compared with last year's, said Chol Pak, president of Los Angeles-based Pacific Fresh Fish Co., which has sold seafood to restaurants in the L.A. area for 33 years.

His company sells Maine American Lobster for $8.95 per pound. Sales are down, he said, because that’s more than most of his buyers want to pay.

William Cheng, manager at NBC Seafood Restaurant in Monterey Park, said that at $16.99 a pound, the restaurant is charging customers $1 more a pound than last year.

“We don’t want to raise the price a lot because then the customers would have to pay more and there is just too much competition,” he said.

One reason for the price increase: An unusually cold winter in the Northeast delayed the summer harvest in Maine. Fishermen must wait until lobsters shed their shells and reach legal harvesting size.

“At this point in time, it is supply and demand,” said Sheila Dassatt, executive director of Downeast Lobstermen’s Assn., explaining the price hike. “The water has not warmed up enough for our lobsters to start moving and shedding [their shells] just yet.”

Maine lobsters account for about 90% of the U.S. harvest, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Another major driver of lobster prices is increasing demand from other countries, especially China.

According to WISERTrade, a Massachusetts-based trade research firm, exports to China of lobster harvested in the U.S. have increased steadily, from $74,651 in 2008 to more than $41 million in 2014.

“The global market, especially China, is driving a lot of these prices that are going up,” said Logan Kock, a vice president at seafood processor and distributor Santa Monica Seafood.

“In Asia, they really like crustaceans and they have an insatiable demand for it as their economy becomes more gentrified and their middle class grows,” he said. Demand from China is boosting prices of king crab, snow crab and lobster, he said.

Kock said Spiney California Lobster retailed for about $10 a pound as recently as 2009. Retailers are paying close to $30 a pound this year, he said.

Costa Mesa-based King’s Seafood Co. said that even with higher prices, lobster sales are still strong at its restaurants.

Despite price increases of 10% to 15% for small lobsters and 25% for large lobsters, “we have not found it to hurt sales,” said purchasing manager Michael King. “It is one of those items that has a pretty steady demand.”

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