Lobster roll popularity driving up Maine lobster prices despite record catches

If there was an official food of summer, the lobster roll would be a lead contender — and not just in New England.

You can now get an authentic Maine lobster roll pretty much anywhere around the U.S. You can even find the seafood treat at McDonalds in six northeastern states.

As demand for this delicacy has gone up, so has its price, reports CBS News correspondent Don Dahler.   

About 80 percent of lobsters caught in the U.S. come from Maine, where lobstermen brought in a record number last year.

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CBS News

That's good news for the growing ranks of lobster roll lovers around the world — but not for the prices. The cost of the glorified lobster sandwich has been on the rise, hovering around $20.

"I mean, people think of Maine, they think of lobster. They come here, they want a lobster and so it's important that we capture that feeling," said Matt Jacobson, executive director of an organization promoting Maine lobster around the world.

"It's sort of that affordable luxury, right? It's the vacation on a plate," Jacobson said.

The journey to that plate begins off Maine's Atlantic coast, where the waters have the perfect temperature to nurture lobsters.

Tom Martin is one of almost 6,000 licensed lobstermen who are benefiting from an underwater population explosion. Last year, Maine lobstermen pulled up a record 130 million pounds — nearly double what they were bringing in ten years ago. 

"The catch keeps going up and the demand keeps going up a little bit faster," Martin said.

"We've got to find more markets for all of the fish, right? I mean we've got a lot of lobster, we gotta find more mouths to eat it," Jacobson said.  

And they have. As demand has exploded worldwide, especially in Asia, so have prices. 

Luke Holden, the entrepreneur behind Luke's Lobster, has seen the change over just a few years. "When we started Luke's back in 2009, we were buying lobster meat for $14 a pound. And we're now up to $30 a pound for lobster meat," he said.

He and his partners started with one lobster shack in New York. They now have more than 25 in the United States and six in Japan.

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Luke's Lobster

CBS News

Asked why the prices are still so high despite the supply, Holden said, "The demand has continued to grow at that exponential rate. So now we've got a market where demand I think is in excess of supply so we've got a very stable price."

Luke's Lobster's processing arm, Cape Seafood, expects to ship five million pounds this year, part of a crucial industry for Maine.

These crustaceans contribute more than $1 billion a year to the state's economy — and contribute to a way of life that goes back generations.

While this season started off a little more slowly than past years, we're told that should pick up over the next few days. 

Unlike many fisheries around the world, Maine's lobster beds are thriving in part because the fishermen long ago set strict limits on the size they're allowed to keep. The lobster body needs to be at least three and a quarter inches long.

They can't be too big either — and absolutely no reproducing females.