PORTLAND, MAINE >> Live lobster prices are high in New England and beyond as fishermen eagerly await the summer arrival of the region's beloved crustaceans, which could come slightly early and send prices down.
Lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts, who supply the U.S. with most of its domestic lobsters, are coming off several years of high catches for lobsters, a signature food item for the region.
Prices for lobsters also have been somewhat high for most of the last two years, with the consumer price currently in the range of $8 to $12 per pound at most retail outlets in Maine, the country's biggest lobster producer. That's a couple dollars more than a year ago.
Prices vary around the country, but the arrival of New England's lobsters will likely lower prices nationwide. Prices tend to fall every year in the summer when many lobsters reach legal trapping size and catches increase.
Scientists have warned the bigger catches can come early this year — a circumstance that can disrupt the lobster supply chain and depress prices.
So far, that hasn't happened. Right now, lobsters are trickling in, said David Cousens, a South Thomaston lobsterman and the president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
"As long as they keep coming slow, there's going to be a big demand for them," he said.
The busiest portion of Maine's summer lobster fishing season typically begins around early July, coinciding with the tourist season. Scientists with the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute have predicted this year's lobster season will start two or three weeks early because of warm ocean temperatures.
Andy Pershing, a scientist with the institute, said temperatures in the central Gulf of Maine are running about one degree Fahrenheit higher than the 14-year average. He said the bump in lobster catches could happen any day now.
A very early lobster season happened in 2012, and prices fell to their lowest point in almost 20 years. Steve Kingston, who runs a restaurant and lobster pound in Kennebunk, said that hasn't been the case this year. Kingston, who buys lobsters direct from fishermen, said some have been held back from fishing by high winds and a surprisingly cold spring.
"There certainly isn't enough of them to start moving price down," Kingston said.
Lobstermen have experienced unprecedented production in recent years. The nation's lobster catch was worth more than a half-billion dollars last year, by far the most in history.
Lobster dealers are approaching this season as they would any other, said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers' Association.
"If weather or volume or any other variable changes based on your best estimate of what may happen, you adjust your plans and act accordingly," she said.