Sales to Japan Buoy New England Lobstermen

THE lobster, considered by colonial Americans a poor man's ``trash fish'' to be used for fertilizer, has reached its highest-ever cost in New England fishing markets in the past two months - $10 a pound. Much of the reason for this increase was due to a low, bad-weather harvest of the ``pounder'' lobsters caught in Nova Scotia late last fall and impounded in fenced lagoons to be sold in the United States before the New England fleets go out in the spring.

But an equally new twist in the $130 million-a-year New England industry is a huge new demand for lobsters overseas - primarily in Japan, but also in Europe.

Estimates of the increase in Japanese lobster imports since 1985 run as high as 450 percent.

``It's a new market that skyrocketed this past year,'' says Bruce Estrella of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Department. His boss, Philip Coates, says, ``The big fish houses were calling us saying the export-market demand had eliminated the pounder lobsters.''

In the past two weeks, the cost per pound of lobsters has dropped back to its seasonal average of between $6 and $7. But experts say the US can no longer assume itself to be the only competitor for the tasty crustacean.

Since 1985, the Japanese have developed a fondness for New England lobsters - along with the means to pay for it. During this time the exchange rate has dropped from 260 to 120 yen per dollar.

Canada has become the leading lobster exporter to Japan because the Japanese prefer the ``chicken lobster'' - a lobster smaller than can be legally harvested in US waters. Whereas Japan imported about 202 tons of shelled Canadian lobsters in 1985, by 1987 the amount was 983 tons, rising to 1,734 tons by August 1988.

Experts say there's little chance of ongoing lobster shortages in the future, since harvests both in New England and Canada have doubled and in some regions increased five-fold since 1980.

Several fishing companies were irate when the press turned this issue into a ``Japan-bashing session,'' as Buddy Lynch of the James Hook Company put it. ``It got blown way out of proportion; it's easy these days to blame Japan for everything.''

In the past two years, the ``gauge limit'' or legal size of New England lobsters has gone up a significant eighth of an inch, which may mean a smaller harvest this spring when the lobsters migrate to shallower, warmer waters to molt.

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