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Stewart Lamont, Managing Director at Tangier Lobster Company Ltd., at the company's facility in Tangier, N.S., on April 4.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Stewart Lamont has worked in the lobster export business for more than four decades. He has never seen prices like this.

The shore price of live lobster – or what fishermen charge wholesalers and exporters – recently hit $20 a pound, Mr. Lamont said. Prices have almost doubled since December.

At those rates, Mr. Lamont, the managing director of Tangier Lobster Co. Ltd. in Nova Scotia, has to charge his foreign clients between $23 and $26 a pound for export-ready lobster, plus freight charges. When other costs along the supply chain are factored in, it all adds up to sticker shock for consumers seeking out Nova Scotia’s prized product at grocery stores and restaurants.

The increase in prices is “extraordinary,” Mr. Lamont said. “But it’s the combination of various events: greater demand, lesser supply, miserable weather lately.”

It’s typical for lobster prices to rise during the winter months, when inclement weather can affect fishing plans. But the scale of this year’s increase is more extreme than usual.

In one lucrative fishing area off Nova Scotia’s southwestern coast, the lobster catch this season is down roughly 20 per cent from last season because of rough weather, according to Heather Mulock, executive director of the Coldwater Lobster Association, an industry group. And when the waters are especially frigid, lobster move less, making them less likely to wander into baited traps on the ocean floor.

“There’s a question of whether this is a trend,” Ms. Mulock said. She noted that the catch was weak last season, too.

While fewer lobster are arriving at the docks, there is still fervent demand from international markets – hence the higher prices.

Lobster is a crucial export for the province. Nova Scotia accounted for most of the $1.2-billion in live lobster that was exported from Canada last year. The frozen market was even larger, at $1.4-billion, although New Brunswick is the main player in those shipments.

The U.S. was the largest buyer of Canadian fresh, frozen and preserved lobster last year, at $1.6-billion, followed by China at $570-million.

Maine, another hotbed for fishing, is coming off its worst year for lobster catch by weight since 2009. As a result, more American buyers are competing for Canadian lobster, according to a report in the trade publication IntraFish.

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Max Lady, left, and Darrin Hutt pack a box of 2.5 - 3 lbs. lobster at the Tangier Lobster Company Ltd. in Tangier, N.S. on April 4.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The popularity of lobster has turned Halifax Stanfield International Airport into a key hub for shipments. Every week, thousands of pounds of live lobster are packed into styrofoam cases with sufficient hydration to keep the crustaceans alive during long-haul flights to Europe and East Asia.

But the recent supply issues have led to fewer departures out of Halifax, as airlines consolidate their cargo service.

“Since the start of 2024, we have seen some reductions in the overall cargo capacity at Halifax Stanfield due to reduced lobster catches in the region,” Leah Batstone, a spokesperson for the airport, said in a statement. “These reductions are not specific to a particular airline but rather are reflective of factors affecting the industry, such as high prices.”

Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, said some customers will “pay whatever they need” for the product.

“But there is a danger in this,” he added. “When prices get this high – if they stay this high – we lose market, because people take lobster off the menu and out of our stores.”

That hasn’t been the case at Oyster Boy, a seafood restaurant on Toronto’s Queen Street West. The menu price for a 1.25-pound lobster is currently $45, although that should decline as supply improves. Even at those prices, diners are still keen to spend, restaurant owner and operator Adam Colquhoun said.

“When people go out and they feel like lobster, they’re eating lobster no matter what the price,” he said.

On the export side, however, there has been weakness in recent months, despite the higher prices per unit. In January, exports of live lobster totalled $121-million, down 19 per cent from a year earlier, according to Statistics Canada.

Mr. Lamont, the exporter, said buyers in Hong Kong have balked at recent prices, preferring to wait for a decline. He noted that other markets, such as Italy, are notoriously price-sensitive as well.

This run-up in prices coincides with a sensitive time for consumers, who have experienced several years of steep inflation – notably for groceries. While food inflation has slowed of late, price levels are much higher than they were a few years ago, and many shoppers are looking to save where they can.

“The restaurants will hit a point where the consumer may not be willing to spend that extra $10 or $15 for that luxury item,” Ms. Mulock said. “They may choose a T-bone steak or something along those lines.”

The expectation is that prices will decline in the immediate future. The lobster season is set to pick up in the coming weeks with the opening of various commercial fisheries on Canada’s Atlantic coast, which are regulated to replenish the stock of lobster. Combined with warmer weather, this will mean more boats on the water – and more supply coming to shore.

Mr. Lamont said that prices have eased slightly in recent days and that this trend should continue. Still, he bemoaned a lack of transparency when it comes to prices, including the fact that government figures on lobster catch are published years after the fact. This general lack of information, he said, gives enormous pricing power to fishermen. (Ms. Mulock said fishermen are facing rising costs of their own, including the cost of fuel.)

The danger is that customers “become jaded, cynical, discouraged” by the prices they’re seeing, Mr. Lamont said. “And if enough clients around the world decide to delist lobster, we have a massive marketing problem.”

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