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Business | National | State | Wednesday, July 14th, 2010, 8:00 am

North America’s biggest buyer of lobster looks to grow their own

William P. Davis
Darden's, North America's biggest lobster buyer, is in the process of building farms to raise rock lobsters, which unlike their Maine cousins, don't have large claws.

North America’s largest buyer of lobster is looking to set up overseas farms to raise their own rock lobster, ultimately reducing their demand for clawless crustaceans caught by fishermen.

The move is pretty far down the line and likely will have little effect on Maine lobstermen, said Rich Jeffers, spokesman for the Darden’s restaurant group, which owns Red Lobster, the Olive Garden and Long Horn Steakhouse, among others.

Darden’s is only planning to raise rock, or spine, lobsters — the clawless Caribbean cousin to Maine’s lobster. Rock lobsters are easier to raise on aquafarms because they can be grown in large groups and take less time to mature.

But the Orlando Sentinel reported that the farms could be a game-changer for the lobster industry.

“If Darden Restaurants can make its project work, it could revolutionize the way lobsters get to our dinner plates. Growing lobsters could make them a cheaper commodity, experts say, much like aquaculture did for shrimp and salmon. But it could also create hardship for lobster fishermen around the world.”

Bob Bayer, executive director of the Maine Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, disagrees.

“It’s not something that’s really competitive; it’s an entirely different lobster,” he said. Rock lobster has a much different taste, he said. “It’s almost like a different market,” he added.

Jeffers said Darden’s would “most certainly” continue to have a strong demand for Maine Lobster and added it’s unclear when and if the farms would get underway.

“That’s so unknown at this point. There’s no guarantee that this project will even get off the ground,” he said Tuesday.

Jeffers said Darden’s doesn’t disclose how much lobster they buy from Maine, but the company buys 100 million pounds of seafood annually, according to the Wall Street Journal. With roughly 1,300 restaurants, Darden’s has annual revenues of about $5 billion according to their five-year financial summary.

D.S. MacLeod is editor of The Haul and a founding editor of the Observer.

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