In Canada, Maine Lobstermen Get Both A Rival And A Tutor

Aug 22, 2013
Originally published on August 22, 2013 10:43 am

There's nothing quite like the sweet, succulent taste of Maine lobster. And fishermen off the state's rocky coastline have been catching more and more of the tasty crustacean over the past five years.

But that surging supply has overwhelmed Maine's limited marketing and processing capabilities and driven down the prices paid to lobstermen.

A year ago, as NPR previously reported, early molting, caused by warmer seawater temperatures, flooded the market with an excess supply of soft shell lobsters. This summer has been a more normal season. But that hasn't translated into a better boat price for lobstermen, who say it's getting harder and harder to break even.

"We're paying four times what we paid for fuel when I started fishing," says Thurman Radford, who has been lobstering for 22 years.

"We're paying 10 times what I paid for bait" back then, he says. "And the price of lobsters is lower today than it's been in the history of the state of Maine."

Patrick Keliher, who runs Maine's Marine Resources Department, has been meeting with struggling lobstermen like Radford all summer. Keliher sums up the problem in six words: "We're catching a lot of lobsters."

Last year's catch: 126 million pounds, up from 70 million pounds in 2008. Keliher says the sharp increase in volume has exposed weaknesses in Maine's lobster industry.

"You look at how commodities are marketed, generically, around the world. ... Maine lobster is not doing that at all," he says. "We spend $350,000 a year marketing lobster. What does that do? Nothing. It does absolutely nothing."

So the state is increasing fees on the industry to pay for a new, $2.4-million-a-year marketing campaign. It's being designed by Jon Stamell, CEO of FutureShift.

Stamell says that Canada, where lobsters have a harder shell, is doing a better job marketing its lobsters. But Maine, he says, can change this dynamic by refocusing its marketing on how its lobsters taste.

"If you go out and you talk to chefs," Stamell says, "they will tell you soft-shell lobsters have more flavor."

Maine's soft-shell lobsters, he adds, "are sweeter, brinier," he says. "And the reason for that is there's water inside the shell. The meat is marinating live."

But for Maine's new marketing approach to work, the state will have to find a way to grow another side of the business where Canada has also had an advantage: lobster processing facilities.

John Hathaway is CEO of Shucks Maine Lobster, one of just 14 such facilities in the state. Using a machine that Hathaway calls a "mothershucka," his company can process as much as 30,000 pounds of soft-shell lobster a day. The live lobsters are loaded into a narrow tank of water, where high pressure kills the animals in about six seconds, Hathaway says.

But the vast majority of this type of lobster processing takes place not in Maine but in Canada.

"We sell the world's greatest food product in the highest possible volume at the lowest possible price to Canadian processors" — tens of millions of pounds a year, Hathaway laments.

More than two dozen large processors in Canada's Atlantic Maritimes then add value to Maine's signature seafood product before shipping it back to the U.S. with a "Made in Canada" label on the box.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage says he'd like to see every pound of lobster caught in Maine waters carry a "Made in Maine" label within three years.

Copyright 2013 Maine Public Broadcasting Network. To see more, visit http://www.mainepublicradio.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One thing that's definitely available - lobsters. In the state of Maine over the last five years, fishermen have been catching more and more of them. But his big catch is not necessarily good news.

Here's Jay Fields from Maine Public Radio.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: It's late morning, and lobstermen are pulling up to a dock in Winter Harbor to unload their catch.

They grab lobsters from on-board holding tanks by the fistful and toss them into crates. Randy Johnson, general manager of the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-op, negotiates with dealers daily for what's called the boat price. A majority of the catch right now is soft shell lobsters.

RANDY JOHNSON: The boat prices are quite a bit different from what the, you know, the actual price is. To the boats, they get $1.50 for them.

FIELD: Soft shell lobsters are more perishable. If they're not eaten immediately, their meat needs to be pulled out and frozen for use by restaurants, retailers and other buyers.

A year ago, early molting, caused by warmer sea water temperatures, flooded the market with an excess supply of soft shell lobsters. This summer has been a more normal season. But that hasn't translated into a better boat price for lobstermen, who say it's getting harder and harder to break even.

THURMAN RADFORD: We pay our sternman 15 percent. We're paying four times what we paid for fuel when I started fishing.

FIELD: Thurman Radford has been lobstering for 22 years.

RADFORD: And we're paying 10 times what I paid for bait. And the price of lobsters is lower today than it's been in the history of the state of Maine.

FIELD: Patrick Keliher runs Maine's Marine Resources Department. He's been meeting with struggling lobstermen like Thurman Radford all summer. Keliher sums up the problem in six words.

PATRICK KELIHER: We're catching a lot of lobsters.

FIELD: One hundred twenty-six million pounds last year alone, up from 70 million in 2008.

Keliher says the sharp increase in volume has exposed weaknesses in Maine's lobster industry.

KELIHER: You look at how commodities are marketed, generically, around the world. We're not doing that. Especially, Maine lobster is not doing it at all. We spend $350,000 a year marketing lobsters. What does that do? Nothing. It does absolutely nothing.

FIELD: So the state's increasing fees on the industry to pay for a new, $2.5 million a year marketing campaign. It's being designed by Jon Stamell, CEO of FutureShift.

JON STAMELL: If you go out and you talk to chefs, they will tell you two things, one is that soft shell lobsters have more flavor.

FIELD: Stamell says Canada, where lobsters have a harder shell, is doing a better job marketing its lobsters. But Maine, he says, can change this dynamic by focusing on how its lobsters taste.

STAMELL: They are sweeter, brinier and the reason for that is basically, there's water inside the shell. The meat is marinating live.

FIELD: But for Maine's new marketing approach to work, it will have to find a way to grow another side of the business where Canada has also had an advantage.

JOHN HATHAWAY: This is the machine we call the Big Mothashucka.

FIELD: John Hathaway is CEO of Shucks Maine Lobster. Workers load two crates of live lobsters into what looks like a tall, cylindrical basket. A heavy chain lowers it into a narrow tank of water.

HATHAWAY: It's just pure water and the pressure can go up to almost 100,000 PSI.

FIELD: The pressure alone, says Hathaway, kills the lobster in about six seconds. Shucks processes as much as 30,000 pounds of soft shell lobster a day, shipping the meat to markets across the country. It's one of 14 plants currently operating in Maine. That may sound like a lot, but most processing, says Hathaway, doesn't actually take place in state.

HATHAWAY: We sell the world's greatest food product in the highest volume, at the lowest possible price, to Canadian processors.

FIELD: Tens of millions of pounds a year, says Hathaway. More than two dozen large processors in the Atlantic Maritimes then add value to Maine's signature seafood product, before shipping it back to the states with a Made in Canada label on the box.

Governor Paul LePage says he'd like to see every pound of lobster caught in Maine waters carry a Made in Maine label within three years.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field Jay Field Reporter MPBN Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.