The Red Lobster chain continues to confound and confuse.
We will remember 2012 as the year we learned that you can have too much of a good thing: lobster. So much lobster that lobstermen tied up their boats for a week rather than lose money fishing. So much lobster that it drove down prices in Canada and threatened the livelihoods of lobstermen there, too. That’s why we were flummoxed when we learned that Darden Restaurants, the parent company of the Red Lobster chain, is planning to build the world’s first commercial lobster farm in Malaysia. Why grow lobsters — and, dare we say, inferior spiny lobsters at that — when the Maine catch is cheap and plentiful?
“This is not an attempt to grow lobster to deliver to market this year, next year, or the following year,” explains Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers. “This is a long-term vision for seafood sustainability and aquaculture and the ability to meet the global demand for spiny lobster, which we see increasing by large numbers, especially in Asia. The American lobster fishery is a very well-managed and sustainable fishery, but there are many spiny lobster fisheries around the world that are not well managed, so we’re growing lobster for a local demand.”
Darden’s plans call for a 23,000-acre production facility opening in 2017 and eventually harvesting up to 40 million pounds of spiny lobster each year. “But we wouldn’t expect to reach that level until 2029,” Jeffers says.
Maine lobstermen landed 104 million pounds of American lobster in 2011, a record that will likely be broken this year. Their counterparts in Canada landed even more.
The two-clawed American lobster is meatier, sweeter, and more tender than the clawless spiny lobster, a warm-water species sometimes referred to as rock lobster. Red Lobster serves both. “You’d be hard pressed to find another company that’s as large a supporter of the Maine lobster fishery as ours is,” Jeffers asserts.
Indeed, Darden does appreciate the value of the Maine lobster brand. It is remodeling all of its seven hundred Red Lobster restaurants in the United States with what it calls a “Bar Harbor-inspired” design, and its Web site features a photograph of the Red Lobster sign with Portland Head Light in the background.
But the chain’s relationship with Maine has not been all smooth sailing. Earlier this year the Maine Lobstermen’s Association questioned the restaurant’s use of the term “Maine lobster” on its menu when the American lobster it serves is purchased from both the United States and Canada. Nor did the restaurant have much luck in wooing Maine diners away from their beloved seafood shacks. All three Maine Red Lobster restaurants closed their doors in the late nineties, citing poor financial performance.
—Virginia M. Wright
Image Courtesy Red Lobster