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Cheap at sea, pricey on the plate: The voodoo of lobster economics Add to ...

Amid an unprecendent glut, Larry the doomed lobster is followed from a Nova Scotia trap to a Toronto table

Small lobsters are thrown back during an early morning fish off the coast of Nova Scotia. (Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

To the best of my recollection, Larry the Lobster showed up in one of Lloyd Robicheau’s traps some time between dawn and 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. My memory of the event is impaired because at the time I was either vomiting overboard or lying in the hold of The Master Rebel, Lloyd’s boat. We were seven kilometres out to sea on a rare gorgeous June day, the eastern shore of Nova Scotia a long eyebrow in the distance, and Lloyd Robicheau had been saying what he often says: “In the lobster racket, sooner or later you’re going to get bit.”

He meant not just in the business sense, but on a lobster-by-lobster basis as well. The feeling had only just returned to his left hand after being nipped by a pincer claw two weeks earlier; now another glistening black devil was trying to sever another of his fingers through his orange rubber gloves. To make a lobster open a claw, you hold the other claw shut. “It’s like playing with fire,” Lloyd said to Reese Reardon and Glendon Bellefontaine, his crew.

Finally freed, he tossed the waving crustacean into the slotted wooden box that keeps newly landed lobsters from ripping each other apart. Then Lloyd searched across the silvery water for the glint of the buoy that marked his next trap. I returned to vomiting. It was 6 o’clock in the morning, and the sea was as calm as a mussel’s day.

Clockwise from top left: Deckhand Glendon Bellefontaine puts a rubber band on a lobster's claw; deckhand, Reece Reardon steadies a trap; three of the catch sit in a wooden box. (Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

In 2013, Atlantic Canada was responsible for 68,000 tonnes, or just over half, of the 131,500 tonnes of lobster landed on the east coast of North America last year. And for the 160 fishermen in Lobster Fishing Area 32 off the coast near Dartmouth, N.S., this year’s annual nine-week lobster season (April 19 to June 20) has been breathtaking. So much lobster had been landed in Nova Scotia by the second week of June that the shore price dropped to $3.50 a pound, which was why everyone was so cranky. I’d been calling it a glut until a couple of local exporters begged me to refer to a “bountiful harvest” instead. They didn’t want their customers to think lobster was cheap.

To a lobster enthusiast, of course, cheap lobster sounds like a good, i.e. delicious, thing. But it never materializes. There is a voodoo to lobster economics. What used to be poor man’s fare, the fallback meal of people too impoverished to afford anything else, is now a billion dollar business and a universal mark of luxury – with the result that a lobster that sells for $3.50 on the wharf can cost $60 and more on a restaurant plate in New York or Toronto or Shanghai, regardless of how many lobsters are pulled from the sea. How this happens is the life story of Larry the Lobster.

As Captain Lloyd Robicheau steadies the boat, deckhand, Reece Reardon, hauls up a lobster trap during an early morning fish. (Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

Like every other licensed fisherman in Area 32, Lloyd is allowed 250 traps. He checks every trap every day. The routine’s always the same, give or take the roughness of the sea. Lloyd steers the boat to a buoy. Reese gaffs the rope and slips it into an automatic winch that hauls the trap off the bottom. A trap consists of a kitchen (where the bait is) and a parlour, and for a lobster operates like a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness: It’s easy to get into but almost impossible to get out of. Lloyd’s using wire, or “American” traps, at $118 each (plus $30 more for rope and the buoy) whereas most fishermen in Area 32 swear by wood, because it’s “darker” and absorbs water faster and is therefore less buoyant. It’s not much of a theory, scientifically, but a lot of Area 32 lobster fishermen swear by it. Early on in his fishing career, Lloyd lost 130 traps on the third day of the season, and another 45 at the end, so he sticks to wire.

Deckhand, Reece Reardon, of West Chezzetcook, stacks a lobster trap. (Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

When the trap has been hauled to the gunwales, Reese – 26, built like a fridge – hauls it onto the boat and starts tossing pregnant females and undersized chicks back into the sea. The little ones look like bath toys. Lloyd helps him. They fling the keepers to Glendon, who measures them and checks for blooms of roe or a V notched in a female’s tail (a decade-old conservation measure used to track egg-bearing females that fishermen believe has increased stocks), either of which gets the lobster thrown back. Glendon then bands the claws of the keepers before packing them into grey plastic 100-pound crates, the most common object in the lobster business. While he does that, Reese replaces the trap’s bait with fresh redfish heads or mackerel or gaspereau or occasionally a sculpin on a spike (the big lobsters like them) and waits while Lloyd repositions the boat. On Lloyd’s nod, he heaves the trap overboard and prepares the next bait bag. They can haul and change out a trap in less than three minutes.

They leave every morning at 3:20 in the pitch dark to avoid the breezy seas of the afternoon. Rocks and whistling are forbidden on the boat, as is turning against the sun while steering out of their harbour. Lobstering’s a superstitious business.

Deckhand, Reece Reardon coils a rope on the deck of the Master rebel. (Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

Today starts badly. Several strings of traps produce nothing but little ones, and by the point where the boat would normally have landed 250 pounds, they haven’t filled a 100-pound crate. The mood on the boat grows quiet. “Get out and walk,” Glendon says to an undersized lobster, throwing it overboard. Ten years ago, 80 pounds of lobster a day was an average catch in Area 32, and the Eastern Shore was one of the poorest places in Canada. This spring, however, most fishermen are hauling 500 pounds a day. Theories abound, all of which are true to an extent: lobsters procreate in cycles; climate change is warming the ocean, and the lobster are moving north out of Maine’s coastal waters; fishermen have better technology and bigger boats; conservation is working. But everyone knows the most important reason: The disappearance of codfish means lobsters have no natural predators.

Suddenly, at 14 fathoms, the bottom gets rockier, to judge from Lloyd’s electronic scanner. Two keepers in a trap is all it takes to turn his spirits. Five keepers is a great trap. In an instant, it’s a good day again. By 8 a.m., the boys have hauled 300 pounds of lobster, including the aforementioned Larry. “It’s in the hunt,” Reese says, lighting another smoke. “You move, you try here, you try there. But you’re always on the hunt.”

Deckhand, Glendon Bellefontaine measures a lobster. (Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

By 10:30 they’re done. The trio gaff six brimming 100-pound crates up to the dock and into a tank of cold circulating sea water. They then retire to the eight-by-eight-metre boatside shacks they live in during lobster season, to await the shore buyer.

The shore buyers in Area 32 have paid as much as $7 and as little as $3 a pound for live lobster this spring. Lloyd’s daily catch has ranged from nearly 700 pounds to less than 300. If he can trap 500 pounds a day (not a given) and average $5 a pound (especially not a given), and can get out, weather permitting, five days a week for nine weeks (he has lost as many as 21 days to weather in past years), he’ll gross $112,500. The average fisherman on the Eastern Shore grossed $98,000 last year. “If you don’t gross $100,000,” Lloyd insists, “you can’t really call it a living.” Still, as people who aren’t fishermen say, that isn’t bad for nine weeks of fishing.

But they’re very big ifs. Lloyd runs the math incessantly in his head. The Master Rebel cost him $200,000, and drinks 95 litres of diesel a day. A license, if he had to buy his today, would be $160,000 more. Reese (who hopes to fish for himself eventually) earns at least $150 a day. Life raft, $1,000; electronics, $30,000. Insurance, traps, bait (500 pounds a day at 80 cents a pound): Lloyd figures it costs him $600 a day to fish. If he nets two-thirds of his (theoretical) gross, and doesn’t have any mechanical breakdowns, he still has to pay taxes. But nobody knows how long the lobster will last or what prices will do. (They have dropped and risen in the weeks since I went fishing with Lloyd.) That’s why, despite the bountiful harvest, he fishes swordfish in the summer, plows snow in the winter, and for a long time farmed wild blueberries.

“A dollar-a-pound drop doesn’t sound like much,” Reese says. “But on just a crate of lobsters, that’s $100 gone, like that.” It’s all a gamble. That’s part of what appeals to us about lobster, and part of what we pay for. It’s why Lloyd calls lobstering a racket.

Larry the lobster. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)

Derek Stevens, the shore buyer at Lobsterworld, shows up at 1:40 p.m. to pick up Lloyd’s lobsters. It is Derek, in fact, who spots Larry in one of the cases and suggests he would make a fine homarus americanus to follow from trap to plate.

Derek’s been at work since 7 a.m. “Price is back up to $4, okay?” he says to Lloyd, almost as an afterthought, and hands him a piece of paper: 590 pounds, or $2,360.

By 5 p.m., Derek is back at Lobsterworld, having picked up lobster from 12 boats in three communities – 60 crates in total. The lobsters are roughly graded – chix (a pound), culls (one-clawed lobsters and other mutants), females to be thrown back, pound-and-a-quarters, pound-and-a-halfs, all the way up to jumbos (4.5 pounds) and beyond – and re-stacked in drain-through crates under spigots spouting cold sea water. It sounds like we’re standing under a 30-metre waterfall. This is when I get my first real look at Larry.

Drain-through crates for lobster storage at Lobsterworld. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)

$8.00

Larry the lobster's value out of the water. (Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

He’s a fine specimen: two pounds, green-black, large claws, male (two penises!), and a brand new rock-hard shell, judging from the unworn spines under his tail. His chitinous carapace (or shell, which is actually his skeleton, just worn on the outside) is an eat-but-don’t-be-eaten machine. He has the classic inscrutable, pissed-off, prehistoric arthropod lobster look: I often try to imagine the moment when the first person figured out these things were ultra-edible if dropped in boiling water. Omnivorous, cannibalistic, even self-cannibalizing if they get hungry enough, utterly devoid of any feeling except the urge to eat and scuttle and survive – does that not sound like the devil, or at least the head trader at a large brokerage firm? Larry even has blue blood – like spiders, like snails, like Satan.

Rick Murphy, the owner of Lobsterworld, peddles a few live lobster in his storefront for $5.99 a pound – nothing like the $12.99 they fetch at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto – but sells most of what he buys to shippers. “If I could get 50 or 60 cents a pound, I’d be very happy,” he says. He seldom is, thanks to the shore price system, whereby 20-odd buyers up and down the Eastern Shore are forced to match each others’ prices.

$9.30

Larry's value after staying at Lobsterworld. (Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

But “there’s too many lobsters coming out, not just here but everywhere,” which means Mr. Murphy is paying $4 a pound today for live lobster he may not be able to sell for $3.50 tomorrow. Other regions such as Newfoundland and the Magdalen Islands price lobsters by auction, or have binding collective agreements that help guarantee fishermen’s incomes. Mr. Murphy blames the federal government for glossing over the intricacies of the fiercely independent Nova Scotia lobster fishery.

Like Geoff Irvine, director of the Lobster Council of Canada, Mr. Murphy would like to see more vertical integration between his region’s inshore fishermen, if they could agree to a steady shore price or a boat quota, and buyers and shippers, if they’d agree to share their subsequent profits with the fishermen – one of many schemes the Lobster Council is considering. “We’re not organized,” Mr. Murphy says. “But there could be a lot more dollars landed on shore.” Between 2002 and 2012, Maritime lobster landings leapt 40 per cent, from 26,000 tonnes a year to nearly 44,000 tonnes. The shore value of that lobster, however, rose only 6 per cent, from $391-million to $416-million. This is why fishermen like Lloyd think someone in the lobster business is getting richer a lot faster than they are.

At least Larry has a place to rest. For trucking and giving him a home for a few days, Rick Murphy will add 65 cents a pound to Larry’s price. Two-pound Larry was worth $8 out of the water. Rick resells him for $9.30.

The outdoor "seasoning" tank at Tangier Lobster Co. Ltd. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)

Larry cools his carapace at Lobsterworld for three days, until he’s trucked half an hour down the road to Tangier Lobster Co. Ltd., a shipper, on Friday.

Tangier is the lobster equivalent of a spa in Palm Springs, one of 30-odd companies in North America that specialize in shipping premium live lobster. It’s run by Stewart Lamont, a large, pink, pleasant and voluble man who grew up wanting to be a writer in Yarmouth, N.S., but became a lawyer and travel agent for lobsters instead. As the annual North American catch has nearly doubled to 136,000 tonnes a year over the past decade, lowering the price of lobster, Mr. Lamont has turned to Asia as his saviour.

“China has 1.4 billion people,” he will tell you, whether you ask or not. “Those 1.4 billion people have a huge disposition to seafood in general, and to lobster in particular.” They’re also used to paying $35.40 (U.S.) a pound for Australian rock lobster – vastly inferior, Mr. Lamont claims, to the product plucked from the pristine (7 C versus 13 in PEI) Atlantic Ocean.

His trick is to keep the lobster as fresh as the day it came out of the ocean for as long as possible, preferably until the season ends and prices rise. Hence the cutting-edge operation at Tangier, an intricate series of refrigerated, 2- to 4-degree ocean-water holding tanks and hi-tech packing rooms designed to keep live lobsters in a state of sluggish semi-hibernation so their shells stay hard and their eggs unreleased.

Outside in the 25 C sun, a lobster will die in an hour. But in Tangier’s refrigerated slumber-party conditions, they can live six months. Darrin Hutt, Tangier’s operations manager, conducts a blood-protein analysis on every 100 cases of lobster that arrive to see how close the lobsters are to moulting their old hard shells for soft new ones. The ones he can’t delay he sorts for immediate sale by size and colour.

"Lobster condominiums" at Tangier Lobster Co. Ltd. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)

Darrin stores the keepers in indoor tanks and “lobster condominiums” – adjustable, individual compartments in which the lobsters don’t have to be banded or fed, given their limited movements and lowered metabolisms. You can tell if a lobster has spent a long stretch in a holding tank, Darrin says: “They’re cannibals, he’ll eat his own antennae.”

Mr. Lamont can truck bugs to New York, Boston, Montreal and Toronto for 25 cents a pound, and can fly them everywhere else for roughly $1.25. In the office next to Mr. Lamont’s, imminent orders are listed on a wipe board: 40 cases (at 30 pounds a case) to Sobey’s, 100 cases to the largest shellfish supplier in Korea, 67 cases to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas (where a two-pound lobster dinner sells for $98), 39 cases to Edmonton. That’s 7,400 pounds of live lobster. If Mr. Lamont’s profit is 40 cents a pound on air shipments – a reasonable assumption – his profit on those orders alone is $3,000.

$11.60

Larry's value after staying at Tangier, the lobster "spa". (Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

For these tender ministrations, Tangier adds another $1.15 per pound. Two-pound Larry is now worth $11.60.

But where is Larry? Why, he’s lolling in Tangier’s outdoor “seasoning” tank, where over the next three days he will defecate what’s left of the last meal he ate (the mackerel and gaspereau in Lloyd’s trap), which will in turn prevent him from soiling his shipping container. (“The poop really messes things up,” is how Darrin put it.) Larry is having a colonic irrigation.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to belittle Larry. I realize there are groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who believe, as David Foster Wallace explained in his brilliant essay Consider the Lobster, that lobsters have feelings, and that my decision to eat Larry is an act of cruelty and an affront to his existential spirit. I’m not a monster; I’ve had pangs. I have. One afternoon during Larry’s spa vacation at Tangier, in fact, I asked Kimberley Shears, the company’s director of logistics, whether eating Larry was cruel. Admittedly we were enjoying a delicious lunch of cold lobster tails in Tangier’s shoreside gazebo at the time, not the most sensitive choice of nourishment, considering the subject at hand. Ms. Shears bestowed a kind look on me, and said, “They technically don’t have a brain.” No, I thought: They have two penises instead, I guess it’s a trade-off. What lobsters have is ganglia, and a stomach where their brain would be if they had one. The jury seems to be out on whether lobsters feel pain. But even if they do, it is the act of confronting one’s own desire, and the moral price of that desire, that makes eating a lobster so compelling. That, in any event, was my thinking on the matter. “My advice,” Ms. Shears continued, “is not to be afraid of the lobster.” She said it as if many people were.

Deckhand Glendon Bellefontaine holds a lobster. (Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

One afternoon driving along the Eastern Shore I noticed a small house by the side of the road that was covered in carvings of animals and devils and pictures of Jesus. I pulled over and looked around. Eventually the owner came out. His name was Barry Collpitts. He was a folk artist, and a devout Catholic. (Acadia University’s art gallery was about to mount a show of his work.) There was a carving of a devil by the door, red and black, with horns and a pitchfork, and the legend I Am Not Welcome Here painted on his chest. I asked if I could buy it.

“The carvings on the house aren’t for sale,” Barry said. “Because then I’d have to make another for my house.” He meant that if he sold it to me, he’d have to put up another devil-guard in its place. “I guess you’re not religious or superstitious,” he said. “But I bet if you did put it up on your house, you wouldn’t take it down either.”

After that I began to notice how superstitious people who dealt with lobster could be. Not just Lloyd, with his rules about no whistling and no rocks on the boat, but everyone. They’re gamblers, reliable people who love tradition and schedules, but who also fancy a spot of danger too, whether it’s the possibility of a poor catch or too much catch, of a shipment delayed by weather or some other act of satanic randomness. Even Larry the Lobster looked a bit like the devil, dangerous and foreign but tempting. Larry embodied the dilemma of desire. Every time I thought of him – I’m serious about this – I was struck by the gravity of what I was about to do: Spend a shocking amount of money to boil alive an animal that had survived on the bottom of the ancient sea for 15 years before I came along.

Fedex staff unload a consignment of east coast Lobsters from the belly of Flight 7054 as it arrives at the Fedex facility at Toronto's Pearson Airport. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

The following Monday, six days after being trapped by Lloyd Robicheau, Larry leaves Tangier Lobster Co. by refrigerated truck in a cardboard box with two ice packs and seven other lobsters at 11 in the morning. By 7 he’s on a plane in Halifax, having been passed as loose cargo from the truck into the rear belly hold of FedEx Flight 7054, a gleaming white 757.

$14.44

Larry's value after flying FedEx. (Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

The plane stops in Moncton and again at Mirabel Airport outside Montreal for fuel and more freight, and arrives in Toronto, on a dedicated runway at FedEx’s vast complex north of Toronto’s Pearson International, at 11:05 p.m.

By 1 a.m., Larry’s sitting comfortably in a FedEx way station in Toronto’s east end, for which FedEx charges $1.44 a pound, bringing Larry’s worth to $7.22 a pound, or $14.44 in total.

Tomorrow morning at 11:50, FedEx will deliver him to Toronto wholesaler and retailer Lorne Ralph at Seaport Merchants, who will in turn add another $1.50 a pound for handling and delivering Larry to The Abbot, a gastropub in north Toronto, between 4 and 6 in the afternoon.

By then Larry will be worth nearly $9 a pound. He’ll arrive with his fellow lobsters in the same unopened box he flew in, and he’ll look good – moving and shaking and reaching his claws back behind him as if he were John Travolta dancing his way into a disco. Alas for Larry, he is not.

Ian Brown and his wife Johanna Schneller, centre, and others eat the lobster dinner at The Abbot in Toronto. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

And so Larry the Lobster reached the final stage of his great journey. Chris Davis owns the Abbot with his wife Carrie McCloy and doesn’t usually serve lobster: It’s too expensive. But Lorne Ralph offered him a good price, so Chris thought he’d try it as a promotion and charge $30 a plate for a one-pound lobster.

An excellent lobster dinner for $30 is good value. I now knew, however, that the actual cost of Larry was barely $10 a pound. But that’s the formula in the restaurant business. “On the industry standard theory,” Chris said, “a third of what you sell it for is food cost.”

$17.40

Larry's value after passing through the wholesaler. (Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

Add another third for labour, and another third for overhead and profit, of which 60 per cent is rent, taxes, heating, napkins and the like. If Lorne sold Chris lobsters at $10 a pound, and Chris sold them for $30 a plate, he made $4 profit per meal. (No wonder nine out of 10 restaurants go broke.) The voodoo of lobster economics never goes away: a chunk of tail meat on a $23 apple, truffle and spaghetti squash salad may shout “Fancy!” to a diner, but the restaurant is making less profit than it can on steak, which isn’t alive and doesn’t spoil as quickly.

(By the same logic, two-pound Larry would cost Chris $8.70 a pound, or $17.40 in total, and tripled into a $52.20 meal on my plate. I gave the Abbot $60, including the tip. The lesson? There is no such thing as cheap live lobster in a good and profitable restaurant in Toronto.)

Chris planned a two-course meal: a butter-poached lobster crepe with ginger and pea shoots to start, and a boiled lobster later. By 6 p.m., his chef, Kevin Beale, had three huge pots of heavily salted water roiling with lemons and bay leaves. He planned to cook 30 one-pound lobsters for 14 minutes from the moment the water started boiling again after what he called “the drop.”

I watched Larry go into the pot. I waved goodbye. I am somewhat ashamed to say I felt no pang. Like, none. But by my count, at least 30 people helped Larry to his demise. I am willing to name names if it helps my moral case.

Left to right: A lobster is dropped in a pot of boiling water; cooked lobsters are removed; chef Kevin Beall cracks the shells of lobsters before serving them. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

The meal was served at a communal table to 14 people, none of whom I knew except my wife. This is an excellent way to eat lobster. People are never shy at a lobster dinner, perhaps because you eat with your hands.

I asked Ms. McCloy what her next restaurant was going to be and she said, “It’s not a restaurant. I want to open a brothel.” I think she was serious. Then someone talked about eating tempura lobster in New York City, which sounded delicious and made me think about all the great lobster I had eaten – in the rough by the ocean and in a sublime lobster roll at a restaurant called Neptune in Boston; with friends every New Year’s Eve. I couldn’t separate the food from the company and the places. I can get quite emotional about this stuff, even if I have no feelings about eating Larry.

$52.20

Larry's value on the plate. (Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

Suddenly Larry arrived at the table. He was huge and red and imposing, but for some reason I waited before I cracked him. I owed him that. As I waited, I watched a young woman named Emma take on her own lobster. She approached it so methodically she might have been a welder. “It’s not for you that you need the bib, “ Emma said. “It’s for the person across from you. Always break the shell away from you.”

But mostly I remembered what Kim Shears said, back at Tangier, on that bright crisp day by the sea: Do not be afraid of the lobster. When I finally broke into Larry, I took my time. I rolled the sweet meat out of each of his legs with my thumb. I had to work to crack his massive crusher claw, but the flesh was astonishing and tender. I dipped his tail in butter or in lemon, and preferred the latter. I sucked his telson dry, and when it looked like there was nothing at all left in him I cracked his chest lengthwise and found mouthfuls of meat in there as well. I felt guilty and grateful, all at once. For that rare sensation alone Larry was worth the money.

Ian Brown is a Globe feature writer.

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