Imagine A World Without Lobster Rolls

“It doesn’t take a master chef to make a great lobster roll; it takes a great lobster” – Luke Holden (Founder of Luke's Lobster)

The Beginnings of Luke’s Lobster

Luke Holden, a Maine native, opened the first Luke’s Lobster shack in New York City in 2009. Like many impressionable college graduates, the lobsterman-turned-investment banker had followed his friends to New York to pursue a career in finance. Upon arrival to the Big Apple, Holden realized that it was nearly impossible to find a high quality, affordable lobster roll. Soon he was writing the business proposal for what would eventually become Luke’s Lobster, a chain of 20 seafood restaurants spanning 9 states, on track to reach over $24 million in revenue by the end of 2016 [1].

Climate Change Driving Lobsters out of New England

Like polar bears, lobsters face an uncertain future. Once upon a time, lobsters were so abundant in the northeast that people would catch them by hand while walking along the shoreline. Now, vast stretches of New England are devoid of the crustaceans, a lobster drought inextricably tied to the ever-warming oceans. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences found that lobsters will be extinct by 2100 due to warming waters caused by climate change [2]. The United Nations predicted that waters in the Gulf of Maine, where most of America’s remaining lobster fisheries are located, will warm by five degrees in the next 84 years—an environment in which lobster larvae cannot survive [2].

It does not take a crystal ball to see a possible future for the Maine lobster industry—all it takes is to look south. Although right now the country’s lobster catch is strong, with U.S. fishermen having topped 100 million pounds of lobster for seven years in row, the looming climate crisis is already visible in Southern New England. Warming water temperatures have been pushing the lobster population further and further north for decades, first decimating the industry off the coasts of Rhode Island and Connecticut, then off Cape Cod. The lobster catch south of Cape Cod fell to ~3.3 million pounds in 2013, 16 years after it peaked at ~22 million in 1997 [3]. Therefore, it is cause for concern that despite the industry booming in Maine, with record landings in the last three years, the focal point of the catch has changed throughout the years. It is evident that one of Maine’s iconic industries, inseparable from and indispensable to so many communities, is being disrupted.

American Lobster Landings (2015)

Sustainability & Traceability at Luke’s Lobster

Despite their vulnerability to future climate threats, the Maine lobsterman have been ahead of the curve on sustainability for more than a century. The state passed the country’s first sustainability law in 1879, which established the lower threshold on legal lobster size (requiring fishermen to throw back small lobsters). Today, similar sustainability measures have been integrated into every step of the lobstering process—from “trap to table.” On top of minimum and maximum size restrictions for lobsters that can be caught, lobstermen throw back female lobsters bearing eggs and lobstermen are limited to 800 lobster traps per commercial fisherman. Licenses for the Maine lobster fishery are closed, so no new lobstermen may start lobstering until others retire [4]. Luke’s Lobster’s personal Guide to Sustainable Seafood Practices can be found below.

In order to ensure sustainability and traceability of its lobsters, Luke’s Lobster owns and operates one of the largest processors in Maine, Cape Seafood. By doing so, Luke’s Lobster established a vertically integrated business model. They do not own their boats, but by owning the processing portion of the supply chain, Luke’s Lobster can verify that the lobster used in their rolls is not only sustainably sourced, but also sustainably processed [5]. As explained by Luke Holden, “creating Cape Seafood allows the Company to take a day’s production and trace it back to the individual lobsterman, what catch they had that day, which day they caught it and what area and what harbor they came into that day.”

The Future of Luke’s Lobster

At a time when overfishing and climate change continue to vex the seafood industry, the story of the sustainability of Maine’s lobster fishing industry provides a ray of hope. Luke’s Lobster is already abiding by sustainable practices, thinking strategically about ways to improve fisheries in order build resilience within its span of control. It is important for Luke’s Lobster to understand the challenges it is facing. When founded, Luke’s Lobster sourced 100% of its lobsters from Maine. As noted above, the focal point of the industry is shifting as our oceans warm—a signal of the industry’s vulnerability to change. In order to stay relevant, Luke’s Lobster must pay attention to these changes and be willing to adapt accordingly. It takes a great lobster to make a great lobster roll, and it is critical that Luke’s Lobster knows where to find them, as it is impossible to make lobster rolls without lobsters.

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[1] Forbes Welcome. 2016. How Luke’s Lobster Keeps Its Maine Flavor As It Scales Globally. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[2] Boston Magazine. 2016. Global Warming Could Decimate Maine Lobsters by 2100, Study Says. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[3] The Guardian. 2016. Baby Lobsters In Hot Water As Ocean Temperatures Rise. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[4] Sustainability – Luke’s Lobster | Traceable, Sustainable Seafood. 2016. Sustainability – Luke’s Lobster | Traceable, Sustainable Seafood. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[5] Food Republic. 2016. How Maine’s Lobster Industry Is A Model Of Sustainable Seafood – Food Republic. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].


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Student comments on Imagine A World Without Lobster Rolls

  1. Very interesting! I wonder how this compares to other fish industries and whether any of those practices can be applied (i.e. farm-raising, for example)

  2. Your post does a great job showing that Luke’s, like IKEA, is a business model that requires a sustainable supply chain. I wonder if the efforts taken to preserve lobsters are a function of lobster’s popularity in the US; said another way, do you think similar sustainability measures would be taken for other kinds of seafood that are less popular?

  3. Great and very insightful post! Luke’s lobster seems to be forward looking, actually caring about sustainability rather than short term profits. But I am wondering if it is enough what they are doing. With 20 seafood restaurants they are serving a high number of lobsters every day. I am sure there are efforts to increase the overall lobster supply. But I fear that the lobster may be the next abalone, which used to be very abundant (especially in Japan), then was completely overfished (despite sustainability efforts) and is now almost impossible to find.

  4. I love Luke’s Lobsters, and never realized that they have a vertically integrated supply chain or sustainable mission! This is another great example of how sustainability practices can provide benefits to a company’s business model and enhance its long term value. My only concern is whether Luke’s, and the lobster industry in general, are doing enough to protect the supply. It is unfortunate to read that despite establishing the first sustainability law almost 150 years ago, the lobster industry is still experiencing pronounced effects of climate change…does that mean it’s too late for industries that are only at the beginning of setting sustainability standards?

  5. As a lobster roll lover and New Englander, this post really hit home. As I’ve grown up, different fisheries have been producing less and less yield. As I think about potential solutions it seems that fish farms are still trying to figure out how to scale, but culturing lobsters appears to be extremely difficult. This seems to be the only viable option to saving the lobster given that overfishing seems to be much less of a problem as compared to rising water temperatures. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that fisherman must also bear the burden of climate change given that, besides boat exhaust, they do little to contribute to the current emissions problem.

  6. This was a fascinating read – thank you for the article. I was particularly surprised by the statistic that in just 16 years, the lobster catch south of Cape Cod fell from 22 million to 3.3 million, and that lobsters may be extinct by 2100. I am impressed that Luke’s Lobster is vertically integrated and using sustainable practices, but could they be doing even more? Are they lobbying for regulations that may limit the warming of oceans? I am also surprised by the general lack of awareness from any of their promotional materials, for a cause that is so central to their business.

  7. This was a fascinating read – thank you for the article. I was particularly surprised by the statistic that in just 16 years, the lobster catch south of Cape Cod fell from 22 million to 3.3 million, and that lobsters may be extinct by 2100. I am impressed that Luke’s Lobster is vertically integrated and using sustainable practices, but could they be doing even more? Are they lobbying for regulations that may limit the warming of oceans? I am also surprised by the general lack of awareness from any of their promotional materials, for a cause that is so central to their business.

  8. Thank you for an interesting read! I always thought of lobsters as being pretty rugged creatures (since they’ve been on earth so long) and was surprised to hear that they could be on the brink of extinction if measures aren’t taken. I wonder if there isn’t more that they could be doing to help solve the issue of warming oceans in addition to their vertical integration on adherence to sustainable fishing practices.

    The article also made me question the impacts of global warming on other ocean species and where Luke’s Lobster fits into the ecosystem of companies trying to solve the issue.

  9. This is really interesting! It is great to see an example of a company that decides to do the right thing because it recognized the long-term value of sustainable fishing practices. Do you think the company would have engaged in this sustainable practices in the absence of regulation? Perhaps this case should elicit a discussion on the impact of regulation on businesses practices and on the necessity to pass more aggressive environmental laws at the federal level.

  10. This article was very fascinating and illuminated how quickly climate change can have an affect on global waters. While I agree that Luke’s Lobster is doing a great deal to stem the decrease in lobsters and to ensure that all of their lobsters are ethically sourced, I don’t know that one restaurateur alone will be able to have a significant impact. Nothing that the restaurant is doing will prevent oceans from warming. I would be curious to learn more about what the restaurant is doing to avoid waste. In the restaurant industry especially it can be hard o estimate the fluctuating demand for a product, and many restaurants end up wasting a lot of food. With lobster supply decreasing so rapidly, I wonder if Luke’s Lobster has been able to develop tracking mechanisms to ensure that they don’t over order the amount of lobster.

  11. Thank you for the great article! I find it interesting that Luke’s Lobster chose to vertically integrate and take control of the processing portion of its supply chain to better verify the sustainability and traceability of its lobster. We can draw parallels between this and the case we recently read on IKEA (sustainably sourcing of its timber). Given that Luke’s Lobster has over 20 retail locations, I wonder if the company could supplement the sustainability it has realized in its supply process by instituting additional measures to increase efficiency and to reduce energy consumption at its retail locations, such as employing solar panels for electricity or setting up a composting program to reduce waste?

  12. “A world without lobster rolls” is one of the scariest article titles imaginable… The vanishing biomass of marine life is an incredibly urgent problem that I think has been overlooked for a long time as we grapple with the changes brought on by man-made climate change. It is refreshing that a restaurateur has vertically integrated in order to ensure sustainability practices of its key ingredient are respected and followed. I am curious how they are able to serve cheaper lobster rolls than their competitors who ostensibly use less sustainable (and thus probably cheaper) practices. I’m also curious how their suppliers of lobsters view their strict adherence to the sustainability rules–will this shift lobstermen to black/grey markets where they wont face the same amount of scrutiny?

    I wonder how visible the sustainability aspect of the business is to the consumer–I’m not familiar with Luke’s, but I’d be interested to learn about how much of a draw these practices are for new/existing customers vs. lower price. Hopefully, if it’s the former, these practices can become the norm as consumers select out the non-sustainable providers.

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