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Winter Lobster Bakes? Glut Causes Price to Plunge
By Michelle Emery   Associated Press
PORTLAND, Maine — Forget about waiting for lobster bakes on sandy beaches. While summertime is lobster season in Maine, those craving the crustacean can curl up this winter with a piping-hot bowl of lobster stew without taking a big punch to the pocketbook.

A glut of lobster in Canada caused by an overestimation of millennium celebration sales and a plentiful winter harvest there has flooded Maine with lobsters from its northern neighbor.

The pipeline has created a buyer's market, with prices headed downward instead of upward, as they normally do in the winter. Retail prices dropped by $1 and more per pound last week.

"Now's the time to go get lobster," said Jeff Holden, president of the industry group Maine Lobster Processors Inc. and of the Portland Shellfish processing plant in South Portland.

Lobster normally runs about $7 a pound retail during the Christmas and New Year's holidays. During this year's millennium holiday, lobster prices in Portland ranged upwards of $9. But because of the glut, prices have since dropped as low as $6, said Bob Brown, executive director of the Maine Import-Export Lobster Dealers Association in Edgecombe.

Some in the industry would not be surprised to see retailers taking advantage of the glut by running specials for as low as $4.99 a pound at supermarkets, a price more often seen in summer.

How long lobster prices remain low, or if prices go even lower, remains to be seen. But customers should enjoy it while it lasts.

"It's never happened since I've been fishing that prices have gone down in January," said Frank Strout of Cape Elizabeth, who has been lobstering for 25 years.

Besides being good for customers at the checkout counter, the lower prices are good for Maine processing plants that normally shut down lobster operations in the winter, Holden said.

But anyone caught holding onto lobsters in anticipation of the normal winter price increase could be hurt.

Fortunately for Maine dealers, they did not stock up or hold lobsters back like their counterparts in Canada. Brown said Maine dealers never bought into the idea that there would be a worldwide run on lobster for New Year's Eve.

It's too soon to say how long the deflated prices will be around, Brown said. But it's not terribly unusual for lobster prices to dip after the holidays, then rise again in February, he said.

For now, there is no end in sight to the glut because Canadian lobstermen, who fish mostly during the winter, are continuing to haul in bountiful traps. Maine lobstermen do most of their fishing in the summer but some continue through the winter.

The few Maine lobstermen who continue fishing in winter have seen the boat price of lobster drop to $3.50 a pound and then to $3.25 a pound in the last week, said Pat White, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. Normally, the boat price ranges from $2.50 a pound in summer to $4 or more in winter, he said.

"The lower price does hurt those doing winter fisheries," White said. "Even when there's a good day, some of the guys aren't going out, just waiting for this to pass."

The lower prices are a regional anomaly. Other parts of the country likely won't see any decreases in price because of the costs of shipping the lobsters.

White said the fluctuations are all part of the unpredictable nature of the lobstering business.

"If we had a crystal ball, we would all be millionaires," White said. "This is a very funny business."

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