PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- There will be fewer claws for Christmas in Europe this year.
Less of the record lobster catches that have been a boon for the American fishing industry are making it onto European tables, where they have long been a holiday tradition, from lobster Thermidor in France to Italy's La Vigilia, known in America as the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
But a strong U.S. dollar and a less-than-festive economy overseas mean a weak year for American shippers like Mike Tourkistas.
Tourkistas said lobster's status as a luxury item, coupled with a rising price because of competition from Chinese importers and a weak euro, is motivating some consumers to stay away -- even if they can afford it.
"Nobody wants to be seen with a lobster claw hanging out of their mouth when the economy is really suffering," said Tourkistas, who is based out of Topsfield, Massachusetts.
Canada and the U.S. export the same species of lobster to Europe -- the American lobster, known for its big, meaty claws and popularity with summer tourists to the northeastern New England states. European waters have their own species of lobster, which has evolved as a cultural totem for generations in Europe. Eugene Delacroix's nearly 200-year-old painting, "Still Life With Lobsters," hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
Exporters started shipping large amounts of lobster to Europe in the early 1980s when airspace became available, Tourkistas said, but it has been a popular food item on the continent for centuries. Lobster is popular in stew in Spain, stuffed in the shell with gruyere as lobster Thermidor in France, and with risotto in Italy.
Some in the American lobster industry suspect European business will be off more than 25 percent this year. The recent trend reflects the deepening of a longer slide in the amount of lobster the U.S. is sending to Europe, where supermarkets rely on the crustaceans to draw shoppers around the holidays.
Shipments of live and frozen lobster from the U.S. to Spain was valued at more than $63 million in 2007, but fell to less than $40 million last year. In Italy, where lobster is sometimes part of the traditional Christmas Eve seafood feast, American lobster imports fell nearly a fifth to less than 8.2 million pounds (3.7 million kilograms) last year.
John Sackton, publisher of market analytics website Seafood.com, said he expects lobster to eventually come back strong in Europe. But this year, the value of live lobster shipments to Europe through October has dipped compared to last, he said.
"I would say the expectation is this will be one of the weaker lobster export Christmases to Europe," Sackton said.
The drop in sales to Europe is happening as New England fishermen are catching more lobsters than ever, especially in Maine, the country's biggest lobster producer. American fishermen typically caught 60 million pounds (27.2 million kilograms) to 90 million pounds (40.8 million kilograms) of lobster per year in the 1990s and 2000s but have topped 140 million pounds (63.5 million kilograms) for three straight years.
Longtime lobsterman William Adler said he's not that concerned about the European market's slip because consumers farther east are making up for it. American lobster exports to China climbed from $2.1 million in 2009 to more than $90 million in last year, federal statistics show.
"There's growth in Asia," Adler said. "Whatever happens in Europe happens."