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Seminar series seeks to create more frugal lobster fishermen

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Seminar series seeks to create more frugal lobster fishermen

PORTLAND — Today's lobstermen are confronted with a vastly different lobster business than the one enjoyed by their fathers and grandfathers.

Gone are the days of socking money away beneath the mattress, or hoping that wealth accumulated in a savings account will be enough to get lobstermen through a dry spell – let alone retirement.

"I used to just put my check in a checking account, pay my expenses and whatever I had left was my spending money," 28-year-old lobsterman Tucker Jordan, of Cape Elizabeth, said.

Creating more business savvy in the lobster industry was the focus of a free day-long seminar, LobsterBIZ, on Monday at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute on Commercial Street. It was the first of three seminars that are being held this week; events are also planned in Rockland and Ellsworth. 

Lobstering dry spells can be unpredictable and last longer than anticipated. There is only a short window of opportunity to catch run lobsters and the weather, regulations, boat problems and the cost of bait and fuel can seem to conspire against lobstermen. 

This is especially true in the spring, when seasonal fishermen set out their gear and year-round fishermen perform routine maintenance. In a business where the paycheck is tied directly to the catch, lobstermen can go weeks, perhaps months, without netting a decent wage.  

"The cost of my overhead is so much right now," said Adam Hilbourne, 30, a third-generation fisherman from York. "This month is the hardest. You have to spend too much to get going." 

LobsterBIZ is pairing hardworking lobstermen with savvy business minds to not only stretch the dollar amid rising business costs, but to create a sustainable business plan, contribute to a health care plan and save for retirement.

LobsterBIZ coordinator Meredith Mandelson, GMRI's community project manager, said the seminars are being funded through a $50,000 grant from the Lobster Research, Education and Development Board, which oversees the revenue generated from lobster license plate sales. Now that the ground work has been laid, Mandelson said she hopes the seminars will become an annual event. 

Mandelson said LobsterBIZ, in many ways, is an extension of the broader conversation about making the lobster industry, and others rely on natural resources, more efficient. She said an efficient industry will help make the industry and the resource more sustainable. 

"It's a hard transition for a lot of (lobstermen) to make," Mandelson said, noting that lobstermen have historically tied their income to volume of gear and long hours. "(But) You're hearing a lot more conversation about how to increase efficiency." 

Much of that efficiency is in the internal business operations, namely taking a longer view of the industry and planning years ahead, rather than reacting to a specific season or day's catch. 

"It's about spreading those boom years out," Mandelson said. 

Kryston Lemay, a certified public accountant, said 10 percent of her clients are lobstermen. On Monday, Lemay walked the 15 or so fishermen through several different business strategies, from becoming a corporation to being a sole proprietor.

Lemay said lobsterman need to take great care when purchasing new boats or trucks as a way reduce their tax burden. Instead, putting money into pre-tax retirement accounts and setting up cash reserves to get through slow periods and down years may be a more viable options. 

"If you really want to work as a fisherman until the day you die, then you really don't have to worry about (retirement)," Lamay said. "If you want to retire at 40, you have to think about this a lot."

Lemay's presentation, on topics ranging from 401k accounts and IRAs to fixed assets, depreciation and the necessity of cash reserves, was not unlike a university course. Both Jordan and Hilbourne laughed when asked if they could recall their fathers or grandfathers sitting around the table and talking about these financial instruments.

Jordan said he was particularly interested in marketing strategies for Maine lobsters. His family owns Alewives Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth. 

"People come to Cape Elizabeth for two reasons: lighthouses and Maine lobsters," said Jordan, who said his family has been fishing for over 400 years. "If the lobster industry collapses then the state will be in trouble."

Jordan said state officials have been imposing regulations that only seem to be facilitating the collapse of the industry. However, the grant money that funded the LobsterBIZ workshop, which included volunteers from the nonprofit small business consultants SCORE, was one way the state could help.

"You've got to start somewhere," Jordan said.  

Planning for the future is more of a necessity, rather than a luxury.

"You never know what you're going to catch next week," Hilbourne, of York, said. 

Presentation materials are expected to be posted on line at GMRI.org. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net