Lobsterman load traps onto a lobster boat at Custom House Wharf in Portland on Monday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine lobstermen have a lot to deal with these days, from high fuel prices to looming new regulations to protect whales that will impact where and how they can set their traps.

Nick Pellechia, a 25-year-old lobsterman from South Portland, is even more worried about the newest challenge: wholesale lobster prices that have plummeted to about half what they were last year. The price drop has prompted some lobstermen to curtail how often they haul their traps.

“It’s pretty rough and we kind of feel like we’re under attack from every direction,” Pellechia said.

The price lobstermen got for their catches hovered around $8 a pound in 2021, which they said was one of their best years ever, with a plentiful haul, high prices and stable costs.

This year, however, is shaping up to be one of the worst Maine lobstermen have faced in decades, with prices falling to about half of what they were last year.

Prices have dropped by half and wholesalers say demand also is down sharply as inflation has weakened the economy and hurt the market for shellfish. With consumers paying high prices to fill up gas tanks and to buy groceries, lobsters are a luxury that many cross off their shopping lists.


Inflation is hitting lobstermen, too, particularly when they fill up fuel tanks before heading out to tend their traps. They say pretty much everything they need costs more this year, from fuel, oil and repairs for their engines to ropes and traps. Bait, too, is a big worry, as federal regulators cut back the quota for herring, the preferred bait for lobster, and prices are rising for it as well.


“Right now, with just the cost of everything and the scarcity of bait, it’s just not a good year at all,” said John Drouin, a lobsterman in Cutler. “It’s just going to be fighting for survival through this year.”

Last year was one of the best in some time for Maine lobstermen as a sense that the country was emerging from the COVID pandemic helped boost tourism and the broader economy and strengthened the lobster market.

Lobsterman Nick Pellechia of South Portland loads traps onto his boat Motivation at Union Wharf in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But just as hope that the pandemic was ending seemed to fade over the winter, so too have those ideal economic conditions.

Nearly full employment has driven wages up, but inflation is eating up that higher pay. Gasoline hit $5 a gallon in most of the country this summer and grocery prices jumped nearly 12 percent over the past year, according to May consumer price data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Wholesalers say the lobster market has taken its lumps this year as a result, driving the price paid to lobstermen down to around $4 a pound. Processors, particularly those in Canada that typically buy a lot of soft-shell lobster, are cutting back because the market for lobster meat is weakening. Some wholesalers that ship live lobsters to other markets on the East Coast also are cutting back because the cost of shipping has risen with fuel prices.

That means there is more supply than demand and wholesalers are dialing back what they will pay for the state’s signature catch. That leaves lobstermen like Pellechia pinched.

“We’re the only people in this industry that have absolutely zero control over prices,” he said. “We just can’t catch a break.”

As a result, lobstermen are cutting back on how often they burn fuel to go out and check their traps.


They say it’s not an organized effort to reduce supply and drive up the price – lobstermen are independent and generally resist such moves – but the market and high costs are resulting in fewer trips to check traps.


Drouin, for instance, hasn’t hauled his traps since the middle of last week and he’s not feeling any strong urge to head out soon.

“Needless to say, I’m not hauling this week,” he said. “As long as we continue to land thousands of pounds, the price isn’t going up.”

It’s not a lobstermen’s strike, he said, “but it’s common sense.”

Lobsterman load traps onto a lobster boat at Custom House Wharf in Portland on Monday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Drouin noted that despite the falling wholesale price, retail prices for lobster have held up. Lobster is a luxury item only after it’s off his boat, he said.

Retail prices typically don’t fall as fast as wholesale prices do, and a spot check around the state seems to prove his point. The market price for live lobsters varies, but remains around $10 a pound and up. A pound of lobster meat – the contents of about five lobsters – costs about $60.

And tourists and other consumers haven’t seen a significant drop in the price of the iconic Maine lobster roll. Even as the broader market softens, it seems there are still plenty of people willing to shell out top dollar for the summer staple.


Retail prices for the lobster meat sandwiches have held steady since May at about $30 a piece, although they can vary from $14 to $48 depending on who is making them and how much meat is stuffed into the roll. A typical lobster roll has about 4 ounces of meat, the amount in a 1 ¼-pound lobster.

Red’s Eats in Wiscasset was charging $31 for a lobster roll in May, about a month before the catch starts to grow as lobsters move to inshore waters and fill lobstermen’s traps up and down the coast. And the price Tuesday was still $31. A jumbo lobster roll at Boothbay Lobster Wharf was selling for $47.99 Tuesday, the same price as six weeks ago. High Roller in Portland was an exception, with its price $28 Tuesday, down from $32 in late May.


Those high retail prices irk lobstermen like Drouin, who said the way the market for his catch is structured means lobstermen can struggle even when retail prices stay high. “That’s the disconnect we’ve always had in this industry – we’re low men on the totem pole,” he said.

Lobsterman Nick Pellechia of South Portland lowers a lobster trap to sternman Zach Fitts of Cape Elizabeth at Union Wharf in Portland on Monday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But Tim Merrill, president of Portland-based P.J. Merrill Seafood, said the lobster market overall is ruled by the simple law of supply and demand, and demand for lobster is off because of inflation. Prices for essentials have risen so much that there’s no room in household budgets for luxuries like lobster, he said.

“People have to pick and choose what they spend their money on,” said Merrill, whose business deals in both wholesale and retail lobster.

Part of the reason for the lower wholesale prices is that lobstermen are now catching soft-shell lobsters, which are primarily sold to processors because they can’t survive shipping as well as hard-shell lobsters, he said. The processors usually pay less for soft-shell lobsters, Merrill said, and many processors already have lots of lobster meat on hand as the retail market has softened this year.

Pellechia said it’s particularly irksome that the impact of lower prices falls almost exclusively on lobstermen because the industry has been responsible, enforcing size limits and working to make sure that Maine lobster remains a resource for decades to come.

“Leave something for the next generation, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s scary to see such a healthy, sustainable industry go through this.”

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