Maine’s top 10 export destinations for live lobsters

The map below illustrates the leading destinations for exported Maine lobsters (the map excludes Canada, where large amounts of lobster are processed and imported back into the U.S.). Circle sizes are proportional to the value of each nation’s live lobster imports in 2015 and 2016. Mouse over each country for detailed figures.

Live lobster exports to China are on pace to triple in value in 2016, despite the incursion of some new lobster suppliers to the growing Asian market.

Final figures for 2016 won’t be known until February, but through November, the value of live lobster shipments from Maine to China climbed to $27.5 million, nearly tripling from the $10.2 million reported in November 2015. That’s roughly half the total export of live lobsters from Maine to date, excluding Canada, where many Maine lobsters are processed and then imported back into Maine for distribution.

And those figures don’t include the traditional year-end surge leading up the Chinese New Year on Jan. 28, when Chinese celebrants have been serving up lobster from Maine, Massachusetts and Canada in ever-increasing numbers.

“I was over at a few facilities the week of Christmas and they were slammed getting lobsters out the door,” said Jeff Bennett, a senior trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center who focuses on lobster exports.

Asia’s growing demand for lobster and bad weather that has kept Maine and Canadian lobstermen off the water this winter have driven wholesale prices up, according to the Urner Barry commodities publishing service.

The wholesale price of a live hard-shell lobster is a dollar more now than it was in December, when it was $7.75 a pound, according to Urner Barry. Live lobster is retailing in New England markets for up to $13 a pound now, compared with $9 to $11 a pound in September. A check of live lobster prices on the Chinese online market Alibaba shows prices in the range of $10-$16 per pound.

The influence of Asia’s growing appetite for lobster doesn’t show up in just the export and sales data.

The China export boom is influencing American tastes as well as prices, with Asian-flavored lobster dishes showing up on American restaurant menus faster than any other, according to Matt Jacobson of the Maine Marketing Lobster Collaborative.

Brandy, curry, coconut, lime and mustard are the fastest-growing Maine lobster flavor pairings, according to a menu analysis by Technomic, a Chicago-based food research and consulting company.

Chefs often are inspired by the dishes they have during international travels, and through social sharing from other chefs, according to Molly McFerran, a consultant who works for the marketing collaborative.

As examples, she pointed to the green curry lobster salad that chef Matthew Jennings is serving up in Boston, and Maine lobster steamed bun with cucumber, celery and yuzu-chili mayo from chef Mike Isabella in Washington, D.C.

MORE PLAYERS IN THE MARKET

It’s too early to tell whether American lobster dealers will be hurt by an effort organized by a Canadian company owned by Chinese fishing giant Forever Fishing in which chartered 747s were loaded with Canadian lobster from Halifax and sent to mainland China.

Some people in the industry have complained that live lobster exporters in the U.S. can’t compete with charter-flight lobsters that benefit from a weak Canadian dollar and a $1-per-pound tariff advantage.

But Maine lobster dealers weren’t worried about the charter flights out of Canada earlier this month.

Industry officials say the Maritimes need charter flights because they don’t have access to a large airport as Maine lobster companies do.

Maine dealers have easy access to Logan International Airport in Boston, which is bigger than Halifax and has more frequent flights to China, and a big hub of freight forwarders, said Annie Tselikis, a spokeswoman for the Maine Lobster Dealers Association.

And around Chinese New Year, when flights to China are filled with travelers whose luggage takes up the majority of airline cargo holds, Maine lobster dealers can drive a few hours south to even larger airports in New York and New Jersey, she said.

All that growing appetite for lobster has attracted Australia, which is heavily marketing its smaller rock lobsters to Asian markets, too.

Although competition for the Chinese market is heating up, American lobster exporters are benefiting from a tariff reduction on imported lobster and other seafood that went into effect this month. The lobster tariff in China fell from 15 percent to 10 percent.

“Any reductions in the cost of doing business, like tariffs lowering, is always helpful,” said Bennett, the Maine International Trade Center’s lobster specialist. “But probably more important is the market and demand. It’s still a good market in China.”

BUILDING A BRAND

A decade ago, no one was shipping live Maine lobsters to China, and in 2010, Maine sold just $100,000 worth to China. But in 2012, when a glut of lobsters hit the market and prices fell, the industry began to invest in expanding its reach.

Lower prices and logistical improvements – the amount of time it took to get lobsters into China was shortened and new shipping methods reduced the number that died in transit – fueled the Asian boom. Plus a growing middle class in China meant the crustacean was affordable to more people.

The market growth has bumped Europe out of the top export destination for Maine lobster, although Italy was the fifth biggest market in 2016, with Norway coming in at No. 9 and Sweden at No. 10, according to preliminary data from trade analyst service WISERtrade. The EU market could be complicated in the future because of an effort by Sweden to label U.S. lobster as an invasive species and have it banned. An attempt to do that in 2016 failed when regulators decided there wasn’t enough evidence to support that claim, but Sweden has vowed to try again.

Meanwhile Asia just continues to beckon. A handful of Maine lobster companies, like Maine Coast in York and Ready Seafood in Portland, invested in the Asian market, making repeated trips to visit trade shows and buyers in China, Hong Kong and Korea, among other places, to talk up the brand.

When Ready Seafoods was founded a decade ago, it sold 100,000 pounds of lobster a year. Now, it sometimes sells that much to Asia in one night. And Chinese New Year, once Ready’s slowest time of the year, is now its busiest.

The season is big even for Maine companies that specialize in frozen lobster, like Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, even though those shipments went out by ship in November on a six-week voyage to Hong Kong.

According to President John Norton, his year-over-year sales to Asia were up about 10 percent in 2016. That represents a slowing in the kind of exponential growth he had been seeing in his Asian sales, but was still very strong, Norton said.

“In 2011, there was virtually no frozen over there from our company or anybody else, really,” Norton said. “Since then, it’s gone from zero to millions of pounds. We’re buying as many lobster as we can, and we sell every one we buy.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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