Maine has had a commercial lobster industry since the 1700s, and the lobster's place in food has changed a lot during that time.
Today, Maine is faced with an unprecedented glut of lobsters–so many that the price of lobster is on the way down. But it wasn’t always so. And it may be different tomorrow.
In the 1600s and 1700s, writes Daniel Luzer for Pacific Standard, there were so many lobsters around Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, that they washed up on the beach in piles two feet high. “People thought of them as trash food,” Luzer writes. The ocean bugs were regarded as food for lower-class people and convicts, and used as fertilizer at times.
That began changing in the 1800s. Lobster prices–and interest in eating lobster–began to go up and down according to price, culinary innovations (like cooking lobster alive rather than dead) and availability. A century and a half later, he writes, “lobster was firmly established as a delicacy; lobster was something movie stars ate when they went out to dinner.”
On the coast of Maine, lobster culture became a way of life. But all was not well. .In the early twentieth century, once-abundant lobster had become rare, writes the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, and “there were plenty of rumors about lobstermen turning to rum-running along the Maine coast during Prohibition days.”
According to Gwynn Guilford for Quartz, lobster stocks dwindled and the number of boats fishing lobster went up–a pattern, she writes, that looked like that of “other fisheries on the eve of collapse.” But today, Maine is in the midst of a lobster boom.
Maine now produces 80 percent of American-caught lobster, writes Justin Fox for Bloomberg View, and more than seven times the average take in a pre-2000 year.
The reason is anthropogenic change, although the exact factors are hard to assess. For one thing, we're eating more cod, one of the lobster's main predators. As cod stocks fall because of overfishing and other factors, more lobsters are reaching catchable age, and they wander around the seabed with impunity, making them easier for humans to catch. For another, the ocean is warming, which has moved the lobstering "sweet spot" away from the state's southern coast to the northeast, Fox writes.
Fishery practices, like not catching lobsters under or over a certain size and not catching egg-bearing females, are also part of the equation–though not, Guilford writes, to the degree lobstermen would like to think:
As the Maine’s lobster industry’s improbable rise reveals, no single species exists in a vacuum. Unfortunately, conservation efforts don’t either. Two decades of lobster abundance isn’t thanks to human mastery of “sustainability.” The ecosystem extremes that seem likely to have produced it—how we’ve pulled apart the food web, heated up the sea, re-rigged the lobster population structure—are volatile. Inevitably, nature warps again.
When Fox mentioned to Mainers that lobster stocks might again crash, he writes, he “was greeted with something of a shrug.” For now, the industry's bigger problem is preventing the oversaturation of the lobster market from tanking prices. Trade with China–as well as the growing popularity of the lobster roll–have helped.