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Rich Malewicki of Beverly holds up a couple of lobsters, weighing more than 1.5 pounds each, on the docks behind Rowand Fisheries yesterday afternoon. Malewicki, an employee at Rowand for more than 20 years, hasn’t seen lobster prices as high as they are this week.

A customer walked into Rowand Fisheries in Beverly yesterday, saw the price of lobster and thought it was too cheap, manager Rich Malewicki said. The price was $11 a pound.

"They should be higher," the man told Malewicki.

And they probably will be.

The lobster industry is in the midst of a supply crisis that is driving prices to record highs. Boats are selling their catches for around $10 a pound | up from about $7.50 in just a couple of weeks | and retail prices are upward of $14 a pound. Retailers have been caught off guard.

"We have never seen prices this high before in our 26-year existence," said Mike Tourkistas, president of Lynn-based East Coast Seafoods, the country's largest lobster wholesaler.

Malewicki said his fish market will probably have to order more lobsters by the end of next week, driving up the price.

Vince Mortillaro, owner of Mortillaro Lobster in Gloucester, described the situation.

"The inventory has been cleaned out, the boats aren't catching them, and (the dealers) have to wait for the boats (to catch the new supply),'' he said. "The supply has been critical the past three weeks."

Businesses that buy and sell lobsters agreed that while many local lobstermen have not started fishing yet this season, a shortage of lobsters from Canada and Maine is responsible for the spike.

"They're basically out of lobsters up there," said Kenny Porter, owner of Roy Moore Lobster Co. in Rockport.

On Monday, Roy Moore was selling lobsters for $13.99 per pound.

"I've been doing this for 27 years, and I've never seen anything like this," Porter said.

Fortunately, the experts say prices should drop soon. Once waters warm up a bit and some key Canadian lobster fishing grounds reopen later this month, the increased supply will drive prices down again.

But it was surprise midwinter demand, lobster "pound" owners' skittishness and late winter cold and storminess contributed to the shortage.

Pound owners typically fill their tidal lobster pounds in the fall when catches are plentiful and prices are down, then hold the inventory, which can be in the millions of pounds, and begin unloading it as prices rise in the winter. Between January and April, most local lobstermen aren't fishing, so dealers depend on the pounds for their supply.

The weather hasn't helped. A March 16 snowstorm cooled waters, keeping local lobsters dormant.

"The previous year, the boats fished all year, and the supply kept coming in," Mortillaro said.

Mike Sosnowski, a year-round lobsterman who is also a city councilor in Salem, said he's seen an extreme drop in catches.

"Last year at this time we'd be catching several thousands of pounds a day," he said. "Now, we catch around less than a hundred pounds a day."

It's been a tough winter, but the season should be picking up soon, and Sosnowski said the worst is likely over.

Restaurants, too, are affected, if they still carry lobster at all.

Bay Bridge Restaurant and Nightclub in Salem, known for its twin lobster special, took the crustaceans off the menu on Saturday. Owner John Colantoni said he put them back on last night due to popular demand, but at a price that's jumped from $18.75 to $25.75 in a matter of weeks. Even then, at $13 a pound, it costs him $26 to serve a twin lobster meal, so there's no profit.

"If we break even on selling the lobsters, and that's bringing people in ... hopefully it's going to pay out in the end," Colantoni said.

Prices should drop soon.

"The lobster market is all in Mother Nature's hands right now," Mortillaro said. "The water has to warm up. Several Canadian lobster fishing areas will also open in mid-April and add to the supply. Once there's a little sign of lobsters, the boat price will plummet $3 to $4 a pound overnight."

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Staff writers Douglas A. Moser, Stephen Tait and Cate Lecuyer contributed to this report.

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