BELFAST — Summer days in Maine often bring to mind thoughts of the perfect lobster roll. This year, according to lobster sellers around the area, people are paying more for the state delicacy than in previous years.

Pictured are three generations of lobstermen: Bill Kirby, left, son Neil, center, and father William, who died last year. Photo courtesy of Bill Kirby

Lori and Bill Kirby of Kirby’s Lobster Shack, 47 Moosehead Trail Highway in Waldo, have been married 32 years and in the lobster business for 29 of those years. Lobstering has been in their family for three generations, with Bill, his son Neil, who is entering the business, and his father, William, all lobstermen. 

Bill goes out daily on the Martha Joan from Searsport to check his traps. His lobster boat was featured, he said proudly, on the cover of the 2005 Hamilton Marine catalog.

“We’ve done this forever,” Lori said. “You can fish up to 800 traps, once you are established as a fisherman.” 

Bill Kirby’s lobster boat the Martha Joan. Photo courtesy of Lori Kirby

Neil, 25, fished last year with 60 traps from a boat he christened Let’s Go, which he is currently working on behind the Kirbys’ house. It was all “hand-hauled,” he said, meaning he pulled the heavy traps up by hand.

“He did all right,” Lori said.

The Kirbys attributed the high cost of lobsters to high demand in relation to supply, and added that prices are not likely to come down anytime soon.

Lobsters also seem to have taken longer to molt, or shed their old shells for new ones, this year, Lori said. They usually shed by July, with the newly molted lobsters, referred to as “shedders,” developing a soft shell.

Neil Kirby said he is currently working on his fishing boat the Let’s Go, shown here July 27. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

Since the pandemic, everything associated with the business has become more expensive, she said, including containers, labels and even the light bill. “Ever since COVID-19, things have been through the roof,” she said.

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that during the pandemic many people ordered lobsters online, which were not necessarily locally harvested. This year, business is picking up, but it is not like it used to be, Lori said.

Also, many people in the industry are facing staffing shortages, Lori said. “We can’t get people to work or people to stay,” she said. 

Because of the shortage of workers this year, the Kirbys did not open their shop until early June. “Usually he has the boat in by April,” she said. “This year it was the first of June.” Bill added, “We usually have 12 people picking crabmeat; we now have six.”

The shortage of workers has also been felt at Delvino’s, Front Street Pub and Harborwalk Restaurant, which announced July 15 on its Facebook page that because of a shortage of staff, it would be closed on Thursdays.

Lori explained that their operation is not a restaurant, but rather, a place to purchase live lobsters, clams and, when available, crabmeat. “We have local customers or sell wholesale to restaurants in Belfast,” she said. Darby’s, Dockside and Nautilus are all customers.

Ron Mitchell, owner of Nautilus, said this is his fifth or sixth summer at the downtown Belfast location. This summer, business has “come back steady,” he said, with more presence in a higher-traffic area by the city dock. Its $25.95 lobster roll is one of the most popular dishes on the menu, he said.

As to why lobster has become so expensive, Mitchell was not quite sure. “They got a slow start” this year, he said. Many things, are now more expensive compared to pre-COVID-19 days, he said. Fuel, for one, is topping the list, along with workers’ wages.

People are charging higher prices to cover their own expenses. Mitchell thinks eventually prices could return to normal, but he is not banking on it for now. 

At Young’s Lobster Pound, 2 Fairview St. in East Belfast, lobster is the specialty and they sell a lot of it, according to worker Kyle Lane. He said they have been extremely busy this season, especially for the dinner-time rush. 

Lane, too, said the reason lobsters have been so expensive this year is an issue of supply and demand. Lobstermen are not catching as many this year and, on top of the smaller catch, the price of bait is also high. As for when prices will come down, Lane said it is hard to tell. “Some people are saying it will go up even higher,” he said, “before coming down again.”

People can expect to pay $29.95 for a basic lobster roll at Young’s.

A sampling of a few other local lobster sellers in Belfast include Must be Nice, a lunch wagon on the waterfront behind Hamlin’s Marine, where people can find a $24.95 lobster roll; Dockside Family Restaurant, 30 Main St., has a $23.99 lobster roll; while Delvino’s Grill and Pasta House, 52 Main St., charges “market rate” for its lobster roll.