One reason you're shelling out more for lobster? China

Prices for lobster meat have hit record highs in the U.S. this year thanks to surging demand from China and environmental factors such as the unseasonably cold winter. This comes two years after prices for the tasty shellfish hit a 20-year low because of a supply glut.

In recent years, China, which consumes 35 percent of the world's seafood, has taken an increasingly larger bite out of the lobster market, where it is considered both a delicacy and symbol of good luck because of its red color. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shellfish exports rose 8 percent in fiscal year 2014 and 20 percent of them went to China.

"China is a huge factor," said John Sackton, editor and publisher of the trade news site SeafoodNews.com, in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "They have become a year-round consumer of live and frozen lobster. They are a permanent factor in the market now."

According to market research firm Urner Barry, wholesale prices for lobster meat, which is mainly sold to food service customers, are about $22.50 per pound, up more than 30 percent from a year earlier. According the company, prices haven't been this high in decades and are at unprecedented levels.

About 50 percent of the U.S. lobster catch is exported to Canada for processing. Roughly 18,000 tons that remain in the U.S. wind up in the live market, which includes supermarkets and seafood restaurants. Prices there have moderated this year, though they are up from their 2013 lows. If current trends continue, however, the high meat prices may affect the live market.

"It's reasonable to infer that more lobsters that would have gone to the live market may go to the processed market," says Michael Gardner, president of the Canadian company Gardner Pinfold Consulting, in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch.

Weather is another reason for the tight supply. The Canadian lobster season was delayed this year because of the colder springtime water temperatures and kept landings (lobster catches) lower in Maine as well, according to Sackton.

"When the water is cold, lobsters are slower to move inshore and molt, which is when they are most hungry and come into the lobster traps," he writes. "So all summer buyers have struggled to catch up, especially as the U.S. economy has been improving."

Usually during this time of year, Boston's Yankee Lobster Co. has plentiful supplies of Maine soft shell lobsters favored by wholesale customers such as companies that make lobster rolls. This year, supplies of that variety are "very scarce", says Yankee manager Frank Zanti, whose family has been in the lobster business for three generations.

"We are hoping that we will be getting them in soon and that the season will go in a little bit longer," he said in an interview. "I am not sure what will happen. As soon as those waters start getting colder, that season might be cut a lot shorter."

Maintaining adequate supplies of lobster meat such as tails has been such a challenge that "there has been a week or two where we had to buy outside of our company," Zanti said.

Lobster populations have boomed in recent years as the result of dwindling populations of their predators, such as cod and haddock. That means that lobster remains a viable business for operators of lobster boats despite fluctuations in price.

"When prices were low ... lobster fishermen tended to increase their harvesting effort in order to make up the lost revenue," says Gardner. "When prices are high they do the same thing."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.