One of Maine’s hallmark industries is struggling, and what they need right now more than anything is leadership.
On a recent rainy Thursday night, I drove to Rockland to spend time with some of our lobstermen. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association held a candidates meeting to brief congressional and legislative candidates on the challenges their members are facing, and to address what elected officials can do to help sustain this iconic Maine industry.
The challenges faced by our lobster industry are not complex. MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron and Chairman David Cousens presented a clear case that the industry needs help finding new ways to market their product and developing more cost-effective ways to do business.
Maine’s lobster industry has been hit hard, along with the rest of our state, by an economy that’s struggling to rebound from one of the worst recessions in our nation’s history. As gas prices have more than doubled in the last four years, the price Maine’s lobstermen have gotten for their product has plummeted. Any small businessman will tell you making less money with more overhead is a recipe for disaster, and this is the hard reality that confronts our lobster industry every day.
A discouraging trend I heard more about is the increasing amounts of our harvest being sent to Canada for processing, then shipped back to the U.S. for sale. The few lobster processors in Maine simply can’t compete with their Canadian counterparts, who are propped up by the government , and don’t face the same burdensome regulatory and tax environment Maine processors do.
This needs to change. We must create an environment in Maine and across the country that will allow our products to be made, processed and distributed right here at home – from start to finish. But this won’t be an easy fix.
There is a building consensus that old fashioned American innovation could provide the answer the lobster industry’s problems. One option may be to explore Niche markets that yield higher margins, which could make certain lobstermen aren’t spending more in overhead than they’re taking in from rock-bottom prices. The sense of pride we all share in the Maine brand could be reinforced through a creative marketing program that reminds the world the best lobster comes from Maine.
Finally we must explore remedies – both in Augusta and Washington – to promote lobster processing right here in Maine while ensuring our Canadian neighbors play by the rules.
I asked the lobstermen in Rockland directly what I can do, if elected, in the U.S. Senate to protect and advance the interests of Maine’s lobster industry. Their answer to me was crystal clear: they need their elected officials to stand up for Maine and lead in Washington.
Our lobstermen need strong leadership because the issues they face aren’t always cut and dry. Differences of opinion on key issues like trap limits and fishing seasons continue to exist within the industry. Getting Maine’s lobstermen back on their feet will mean providing the leadership to move the process forward, making sure Mainers know they have a strong advocate fighting for them in Washington.
What I saw in Rockland was an industry ready to take matters into their own hands. They are developing a path forward based on a strong-willed self-reliance only Mainers could have; they aren’t looking for the government to come in and magically make it all better. Looking to Washington, our lobster industry simply needs a fair playing field and access to the necessary resources so they can get themselves through this difficult time.
I was thrilled for the opportunity to spend a few hours with these hard-working people, and I hope the other candidates also have the opportunity to meet with them. Though the struggles they face are daunting, it was inspirational to see an industry so willing and eager to do the hard work necessary to put themselves back on a path towards prosperity.
These are the working people that characterize Maine and will bring America’s economy back to life, and I look forward to providing the leadership they are looking for in the United States Senate.
Secretary of State Charlie Summers of Scarborough is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Maine.