If lobsters are an economic indicator the island’s growth is looking rosy but there’s some way to go to reach boiling point.

James Howard general manager of TGI Friday’s told the Journal there was a boom in lobster consumption in the early 90s before the economic downturn nipped crustacean consumption in the bud. Sales have not yet clawed their way back to that level he said but the market is holding strong.

“We check our usage every week. We know with the history of our business when the economy is good we definitely sell more steaks and lobsters. I think the economy is getting better so our lobster sales are about average now — but we can definitely sell more.” TGI Friday’s sells about 100 lobsters a week.

Japanese tourists consume the majority of lobsters on Guam and Howard told the Journal it’s because of a combination of reasons.

“Lobster has always been popular with Japanese guests because I know lobster is more expensive in Japan than it is here. If you have the right sales people and a set menu that comes with the lobster in it — and the price is reasonable — you can sell the lobster.”

He said lobster has grown not only in popularity but the trend of tanks of live lobsters has become a more frequent sight. Howard said live lobster was not even available in most restaurants 10 years ago.

The Japanese appetite for lobster can demand as many as 200 per week at a barbecue at his hotel Andreas Lorenz manager of the Westin Resort Guam said.

Some island suppliers are meeting the growing demand.

George Lai president of Quality Distributors said the number of lobsters he sold this year was the most in the eight years Quality has been distributing them. As one of the island’s largest food distributors Quality receives the island’s largest food distributor receives two shipments per week of live lobster via either Northwest or Continental Airlines bringing in between 1 000 and 1 500 lobsters on each flight.

But even with figures like these the bottom line for both restaurants and distributors is a fine one. Lai said many factors are out of their control.

“It depends on how they transport them. Sometimes flights can be late for example or cancelled in Tokyo or Korea. It’s kind of a risky business. Sometimes we take a loss on the shipment but we work it out with our suppliers and any given day it is over 5% [mortality] we get a reimbursement.”

The lobsters are shipped dry and out of water because they become more relaxed out of water and are thus easier to transport. However when they arrive they need to be put in chilled salt water. At any one time Lai said Quality may store as many as 5 000 lobsters at the Tamuning facility. Because the lobsters are relatively delicate Quality provides many customers with tanks and inspects daily the pH and salinity levels of the tanks.

Quality’s lobsters come from two destinations including Nova Scotia in Canada which last year accounted for $1 million in exports to 55 different countries according to the Canadian Department of Agriculture and Agri-food. Lobsters are also more vulnerable during a molting or “soft shell” phase (typically summer in Canada). For these reasons Lai and many distributors the world over choose to use Maine Lobster due to a combination of their hardiness and size.

Recent fuel prices have affected the transport cost of lobster affecting both retailers and distributors alike. Lai said he makes efforts to keep the restaurants from having to reprint their menus every time there is a wholesale price change.

“What we try to do is control the price for our customers. A lot of times they have to change their menu prices but we work on a fixed price for a three-month period.”

Local lobster retailers told the Journal they have the tastiest lobster and at affordable prices though supply is limited.

Manuel P. Duenas II president of the Guam Fishermen’s Co-op said although 70% of the local lobsters caught in Guam are eaten as subsistence some do make it to the Hagatna market. He said many locals as well as other regional fisherman prefer locally caught lobsters.

“I think our waters around here have better circulation — we have a lot of tidal currents going different directions many times of the year. I think our water here is very clean and it gives a lot of nutrients from upwelling coming through the Trench.”

Guam produces both Spiny Tail and the deeper Slipper varieties. However Duenas said there is little market for them and as the majority are located on the eastern shores of the island they are quite dangerous to harvest. MBJ