When a menu says ‘market price’ for seafood, what does that really mean? (2024)

Prime seafood season has begun. From coast to coast, summer vacationers are making their way to the beach, seeking out lobster rolls and fish tacos. But two little words on the menu can strike fear in the hearts of diners everywhere: market price.

“I get asked about market price all the time,” says Steven Wong, owner of Aqua Best seafood distributor in New York. “It takes me a while to explain to customers what it really means.” People assume the dish will be expensive, or that it gives restaurants a blank check to name any price. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

Global seafood consumption has risen significantly in recent years. In the U.S. alone, we eat 102 billion dollars' worth annually.But as demand increases, so too have the costs of bait, fuel and labor.

“These are nuances that consumers don’t really hear about unless they talk to the fishmonger,” Wong says. “Seafood is one of the last items that is wild. If you think about meat or poultry, they’re farm-raised. That’s why in a lot of restaurants, we see lobsters at market price.”

Michael Billings, chief procurement officer for ButcherBox, which only sources wild-caught seafood, agrees. “I don’t look at it as anybody trying to cheat," he says. "I think people are just trying to mitigate risk so they can maintain margins, which is totally logical for any business.”

In fact, there are multiple businesses at play when it comes to your plate

“When customers see a market price item on the menu, I wish they knew more of the story behind what went into getting that product to market: harvesting it out on the water, the care we take in managing our resources, the effort and risk that goes into catching those lobsters on a daily basis,” says Curt Brown, a lobsterman and marine biologist at Ready Seafood, which sends lobster from coastal Maine around the world.

When a menu says ‘market price’ for seafood, what does that really mean? (1)

“Whenever you look at a price on a menu, whether it’s written down in a dollar amount or it says ‘MP,’ it is still an example of market price,” Brown points out. “But when I see that label, I think of something that can change very quickly.”

Brown, Billings and Wong agree that diners would have a deeper appreciation for market price items if they knew how much contributes to the number on the bill. So, let’s do a deep dive into the factors that have the biggest impact.

What's the weather?

The first thing most harvesters look at when they wake up in the morning is the forecast. “Wild-caught fisheries are subject to the whims of Mother Nature, and that’s a big part of what goes into that market price,” Brown says. When conditions are good, there's a rush to get out on the water, and supply that day will be high. But weather can change — fast.

“Say the wind kicks up in the late morning — that could drive all the boats back into port without a full day’s catch,” Brown says. “It’s a struggle because there is always that incentive to push the limit. When the weather is bad, there will probably not be a lot of people going out and you might be able to get a better price for your product, but there’s also a safety component involved.”

Brown reflects on a day when he went out despite an iffy forecast and his boat flipped. He had to be rescued by the Coast Guard — not an experience any fisherman is looking to repeat. “I don’t get as upset about missing bad weather days after that whole experience, I can assure you. But there are days now when I don’t go out, and then the marine forecast was wrong and I kick myself all day long. Or vice versa where it says it’s going to be beautiful, and I end up getting my butt kicked.”

There’s also seasonality to consider. As summer rolls on, we’ll enter peak lobster and crab season, when consumers will find prices at their lowest due to an abundance of supply. But much of what is caught in warmer months tends to be soft shell, after the crustaceans have shed, which don’t travel well. “That’s why we have sweet Maine lobsters that are really cheap in the summertime for a domestic market, but the same lobsters get expensive in the wintertime with the cold,” Wong explains.

Plus, lobsters are physically harder to harvest in winter because they go deeper in the water, where the temperature is actually warmer than it is up near the surface. Traditional New England boats can’t withstand winter storms or even the nor’easters and hurricane seasons that begin in the fall, says Wong. “It’s just not worth it for fishermen to risk their lives."

Local market, global trade

Brown, who has worked in the same area since he was a kid, says it is typical for fishermen to spend their entire career in one location. But once a lobster is sold off a boat like his, it is subject to a whole new world of factors that affect price, from politics to trade tariffs. As one example that might not occur to U.S. consumers, Brown says, China is a huge market for live lobster from Maine, but usually only hard shells can survive the journey. “For that reason, they’re usually worth a dollar or two more per pound than a soft-shell lobster. But for the last three years, China has been shut down with a zero-COVID policy. So our Maine lobster sales there have been very, very slow relative to what they were pre-pandemic.”

The pandemic also affected domestic seafood sales. “Supermarkets got rid of their fresh seafood counters, and a lot of those never came back because now they can’t get help,” says Billings, who was assistant vice president of meat and seafood at BJ’s before landing at ButcherBox. “But that taught people a lot about frozen. A very, very high percentage of fish now comes frozen. And people have realized that — if it’s frozen at sea right away — it’s pretty darn good.”

Ice, ice, baby: The frozen factor

Right now in Bristol Bay, Alaska, the brief sockeye salmon season is on.

“It’s all caught and frozen in this window of time,” says Billings, “and that’s the product you have to last until the next June.” That means that there’s one negotiating time of year. “The markets are basically set by the big guys, the Costcos of the world,” he says, which helps customers on a budget. “With frozen product, you can equalize the pricing as it travels down the chain, because instead of trying to keep daily fluctuations separate, they just average ‘em all. It takes volatility out to get a blended number that lasts for longer periods of time.”

And it’s not just consumers who reap the benefits: The growing popularity of frozen seafood and delivery services has been a blessing for fishermen, too.

“During COVID, our traditional markets, for the most part, disappeared overnight,” says Brown. Cruise lines and restaurant chains like Red Lobster, which had accounted for the vast majority of his business, shut down. But people stuck at home wanted healthy new proteins in their diet, preferably without making a trip to the grocery store, and that’s when ButcherBox came knocking. “All of a sudden we were able to make a connection with folks who were tired of cooking the same thing over and over again,” he says. “Having that partnership was a lifesaver for us as a company.”

So, how do I know if I'm getting ripped off?

Pull up to a seafood shack this summer and you may well see customers balking at their bill. At Duryea's Lobster Deck, one of Ina Garten's favorite Hamptons destinations, a market price roll could run you upwards of $44 today. But don't forget that too-high prices aren't in a restaurant's best interest, either.

"It always comes back to that old supply-and-demand story," Billings says. "The year before last, scallops went to $20 a pound. And that crushed the demand — people wouldn’t pay that price."

Eating at home, of course, is one way to make sure a hefty check doesn’t take you by surprise. There are great options besides ButcherBox for those looking to prepare their own wild-caught, sustainably sourced lobster, fish and shellfish. “We’ve [also] seen a heightened interest in more seafood recipes,” says John Adler, a senior vice president at Blue Apron. This month, Blue Apron added summer specials featuring crab to its menus for the first time. A crab sandwich picnic for eight costs $144.99 — a relative bargain compared to $125 lobster roll kits for four currently making headlines in Maine.

But if you're searching for a taste of summer without spending time in the kitchen, you might have to roll with the punches and shell out — just like everyone else involved in getting that delicacy to your plate.

When a menu says ‘market price’ for seafood, what does that really mean? (2)

Emily Gerard

Emily Gerard is a writer at the TODAY show, by way of ABC’s Nightline and Vanity Fair magazine. She lives in Brooklyn where she entertains frequently. Her favorite dinner guests are dogs and you can find bountiful proof on her Instagram.

When a menu says ‘market price’ for seafood, what does that really mean? (2024)
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