When COVID-19 seemingly shut down the world this spring, ripples of concern spread through the Maine lobster fishery. Large-scale purchasers of lobster, such as restaurant chains, casinos, cruise lines, and others, closed down in order to limit the spread of COVID 19. Since seafood typically is purchased and eaten outside the home, sales plummeted during the lockdown. Lobstermen in the U.S. and Canada worried that with such a decrease in demand, the price paid for their harvests would plummet as well.
Remarkably, however, seafood processors were able to move lobster into the marketplace largely through domestic retail sales. “We catch most lobster in the summer and fall, so having the pandemic hit in March gave us the opportunity to find new methods of distribution before we had product to sell,” said Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “The pivot overall was more of a focus on expanding business with existing customers and targeting new retail customers as opposed to getting into retail from scratch.” Grocery chains such as Hannaford and Market Basket have promoted New England lobster throughout the summer as an affordable and easy-to-prepare food item for those stuck at home.
As John Sackton, founder of SeafoodNews.com, wrote in July, COVID-wary consumers quickly showed that eating seafood at a restaurant was more often a matter of convenience rather than a fear of cooking. During the spring and summer months, according to Nielsen data cited by Sackton, consumers purchased frozen seafood in dramatic numbers; grocery sales of seafood nationally jumped 22.6% during the spring months compared to 2019.
“Next there will be an effort on the part of the retailers to hang on to the new customers,” Sackton said in a recent interview. “However, the economic component will be more important in the fall. A lot of sales of more expensive frozen seafood, such as lobster and crab, were helped by the stimulus.” With millions of Americans unemployed and a reduction in unemployment benefits since the end of July, those customers who once could afford frozen or prepared lobster items may choose to spend their limited dollars in different ways this fall.
The Maine lobster fishery is in a peculiar position. Due to tariffs instituted by the Trump administration against China, sales of lobster to that country evaporated in 2018 and have not rebounded despite a thawing of trade relations announced in January. In the first six months of 2020, China bought just $25.9 million of U.S. lobster, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is 23% less than what it had bought in the first half of 2019, and 61% less than its 2018 sales purchases during the same period.
Maine processors have faced additional tariff obstacles in selling to Europe, which has been cautiously re-opening its economies this summer. Canada and the EU signed free trade agreement in 2017, putting U.S. lobster at a disadvantage. “It’s hard when your markets are cut off in three directions. We can sell domestically or to Canada,” Sackton said bluntly. However, the removal of EU tariffs was announced in late August, which is hoped will stimulate opportunity in this market.
In Canada, the lobster sector took a hard look early on at what the 2020 season might bring, noted Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, in the August issue of Landings. Concern that all lobster markets might collapse entirely turned to cautious optimism as orders for frozen tails picked up. By mid-May, seafood processors in the Maritime provinces were facing increased demand for product while also dealing with a sharply reduced pool of labor, due to restrictions on travel by foreign workers to Canada. “Prices stabilized. They have been buying from Maine and processing frozen lobster tail on assumption of continued demand,” Sackton said. “But if there is an economic pullback this fall, it is likely to hit those more expensive lobster tails.”
Ready-to-eat seafood meals are still making a strong showing among grocery store customers. For example, Bristol Seafood, a Portland seafood processor, has seen sharply increased demand for its “My Fish Dish,” introduced in 2019. The line offers 18 different meals using frozen cod from Norway or U.S.-sourced scallops, Atlantic salmon or sockeye salmon. The company plans to expand its product line this fall with unfrozen, ready-to-go packages of fish for home cooks.
But lobster is often too pricey for such prepared meals, Sackton said. Instead, processors are producing frozen lobster at a price that allows them to sell it profitably in the current market, not as value-added products. How long that can go on is a question unanswerable at the moment. “Sixty to seventy percent of [U.S.] lobster sales are in New England and New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,” Sackton explained. “The retail market can’t carry the fishery all by itself.”
Online sales of just about every food item imaginable have surged during the months of the pandemic. Among the items proving popular with home-bound gourmets is lobster roll kits. Eventide restaurant in Portland sells a make-it-yourself lobster roll kit through Goldbelly, a gourmet food shipping company operating nationwide, as does The Clam Shack in Kennebunk.
For Mark Murrell, founder of GetMaineLobster.com, the shift among consumers toward ordering their food online has been nothing short of remarkable. “In August last year we shipped somewhere between 1200 to 1500 boxes. This year we are doing six times that amount,” he said.
Since the company’s inception in 2010, GetMaineLobster has provided some form of lobster to at least 400,000 people, according to Murrell. In a given year, the company fulfills orders from approximately 80,000 people, shipping everything from live lobsters and frozen lobster tails and meat to lobster roll kits throughout the country.
“Typically 70% of the orders are lobster tails and meat, but right now lobster roll kits are on fire,” Murrell said. “I ordered 600 six-pack New England split top rolls just this week!” The company owns a wharf and property on Commercial Street in Portland and Murrell buys the catch of lobstermen berthed there. However, he also credits his good relationships with several large lobster processors and buyers with the company’s ability to meet the sharp uptick in demand during the pandemic. “We are buying about 3,000 pounds of processed product each week now,” he said.
Other companies, such as Lobster Anywhere in Massachusetts, Maine Lobster Now in Portland, and The Lobster Guy in Rhode Island, also are shipping more orders of lobster products to home-bound consumers. “But there’s room for more competition,” Murrell said. “Seafood consumption is up and there’s lots of demand. During the past four holidays, we had to stop taking orders because we couldn’t meet them.”
Even when the virus is under control and people feel more at ease shopping and dining out, demand for online seafood will still remain strong, according to Murrell. “I think this volume is sustainable. It will go down a little when people start going out but I think there’s been a major shift in consumer behavior on how to acquire food,” he said.