Loving the Lobster

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Chives restaurant in Halifax with my brother and his wife. Our mains arrived and I dug into my lobster risotto. “You guys want some?” I asked, in between inhaling mouthfuls of the rich and creamy dish.

They both wrinkled up their noses at me. “No thanks… we’re kind of tired of lobster.”

Whu-whut?? Who could possibly be tired of lobster? Don’t they realize how good this stuff is? Why, if I lived, as they do, a mere 10 minute walk from the local wharf, and it was as cheap as it has been this summer, I’d eat lobster at least once a week. “We do.” They do. And they’re getting kind of sick of it.

Blame it on the recession. When times are tough, we give up the luxuries first, and this past year, even the people who could still afford the luxuries mostly gave them up, so as not to seem ostentatious while their friends and neighbours were losing jobs, homes and life savings. Which means that items like lobster, fine wines and truffles have been getting a bad rap, and people began avoiding them.

For a while it was fine – the price of lobster dropped and those of us who couldn’t afford the crustaceans on a regular basis ate our fill. But then the prices dropped even further, and the wholesalers began offering a price that was so low, it would actually cost the lobster fishers to go to work each day.

At the lowest point over the summer, major supermarket chains were offering $3 or $3.50 per pound for lobster, while most fishers calculated their break-even point at $4. In Nova Scotia, where most people prefer to buy their fish right off the boat anyway, many openly boycotted the supermarkets and bought their lobsters directly from the fishers – either by heading to the wharves or from the occasional enterprising fisher who sold the stuff out of the back of a truck. Selling directly to the public and by-passing the middlemen of wholesalers and supermarkets, the fishers were able to charge around $5 a pound (undercutting the supermarket retail low of $6) – and make a small amount of profit.

The Atlantic provinces are dependant on a steady price for lobster. It’s important to the economies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI and Newfoundland, as well as the country as a whole, exporting $1 billion in products and employing 25,000 people on land and at sea. Lobster is one of the most sustainable fishery systems in existence – the hand-hauled traps means it’s hard to over fish the stock, and the summer season rotates around the region to ensure moulting lobsters or females carrying eggs are not caught and harvested. The traps even have components that bio-degrade if they are lost at sea so the lobsters can escape.

But Canadians tend to think of lobster as a summer food, and the tough times fishers experienced throughout the summer increase substantially after Labour Day when we switch to more hearty fare and leave the lobster boils, lobster rolls and picnic tables covered in newspaper until the warm weather returns. There’s a blip around the Christmas holidays at the peak of the second harvest season (the main lobster season usually runs from May until July and then rotates around the region and ramps up again for December before slowing down to just a couple of regions over the winter), and prices go up at this time as a lot of lobster gets shipped to dinner tables in Europe, but the fall months are slow even in good years – and this has not been a good year.

Which is why, in an uncharacteristic bout of camaraderie and co-operation, the four Atlantic provinces and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans have teamed up to promote lobster. At a recent media event in Toronto (also held throughout the summer in various cities across the country), government officials, as well as promoters of trade and tourism, gathered to encourage Canadians to think of lobster as an anytime food. Better for you than cookies (lobster is lower in fat and calories, and higher in protein than other meat), it’s also a versatile ingredient.

On the Taste Lobster website, suggestions for lobster include bisque, sushi, used in a salad with strawberries, in scalloped potatoes, with mac and cheese, or in Thai red curry with plantain. Of course, most of us are used to eating our lobster steamed, or maybe poached in butter, and that’s fine too. One of the other aims of the Taste Lobster website is to show people that lobsters are both easy to cook and easy to eat, so that those who avoid lobster because they think it’s cruel or messy will understand the process and be more comfortable with the consumption of this truly delicious seafood.

Here in Toronto, we’ve seen lobster prices climb back up recently (the Metro near me was charging $11.99 a pound last week) but that’s still lower than the peak prices from previous years – indeed I’ve bought lobster “on sale” at a higher price than that. We don’t have the option in Ontario of heading down to the wharf and buying our lobster right off the boat, so it’s really hard to tell where the lobster came from and how much the store or restaurant paid per pound. I’m not sure grilling the guy at the fish counter at Metro or No Frills will provide me with much satisfaction with regards to whether the fisher was paid a fair price for his catch. (I’m hoping that, at that price, at least $5  – preferably $6 – of that is going to the guy who caught my dinner.)

Nevertheless, if we can afford to eat lobster, we should be doing so, even if it’s only to keep demand up. Paying more at the retail level means (hopefully) that the profit is being passed on to the fishers, and with so much riding on the lobster industry in terms of jobs and production, we can happily continue to enjoy our favourite summer treat almost year ’round knowing that we’re supporting a sustainable fishery in the process.