Update: Lobstermen hope new retail brand will boost sales, prices
PORTLAND — For the last 56 years, Ernie Burgess has been shoving off from Chebeague Island to trap lobsters in the waters of Casco Bay.
He has seen good times and bad.
"We were robbed of a good year this year," Burgess said Monday, noting that the catch is up, but prices remain low, while fuel and baits costs are high.
In the past, lobstermen would tie their boats up at the docks for days at a time, in an effort to get dealers to increase wholesale prices.
But now, the 66-year-old Burgess is one of several area fishermen hoping to turn around a slumping lobster industry by carving out their own brand for Maine's marquee seafood.
"In 56 years on the water, I've never had anyone ask me, 'How much do you need to get for your lobsters,'" Burgess said. "It's always been, 'This is what we're paying.'"
On Sept. 14, Chebeague Island and Cliff Island fishermen launched the Calendar Island Lobster Co., a joint venture of 29 lobstermen who will hand-select choice lobsters for their customers based on shell quality and claw size.
The company is a collaboration between the Island Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for island communities and their marine and island ecosystems, and Dropping Springs LLC, a 5-year-old lobster wholesale company managed by John Jordan, a Yarmouth lobsterman who also owns a home on Chebeague.
"Great innovations spring up in times of trouble," Jordan said at a press conference on the Portland waterfront Monday. "Because they give us reason to reflect on the way we operate and that is exactly what we've done."
Calendar Island Lobster Co. will attempt to forge a personal connection between lobster harvesters and consumers, by creating a brand and tracking each lobster from ocean bottom to plate. Consumers will be able to log onto the company's Web site and read the story of the fisherman who caught each crustacean.
"If a consumer in New Jersey buys a lobster from us, they can go to our Web site, type in that code and actually see the lobsterman," Jordan said last week. "We're trying to meet a niche in a market that is interested in knowing where their food comes from. We're also offering a premium product; this is the best catch we have to offer."
Although there are on-going talks with restaurants and retailers interested in carrying Calendar Island lobsters, the company still has a way to go.
The group is looking to the Island Institute to help meet its ambitious schedule. Over the next year, the organization will try to develop the trap-to-plate, lobster-claw branding system, which will allow customers to track their lobsters back to the source, while the institute assists with Web site development, public relations and graphic designs.
More importantly, the company will be seeking long- and short-term investors, while also trying to underwrite a full-time operations manager.
Although the company is in its infant stages, Jordan believes the company is poised for success, not only because it has the participation of member fishermen, but the Chebeague community as a whole.
"So far, the response on the island has been great," Jordan said in a press release. "We've received so many calls from people asking how they can help get us off the ground; it's really gratifying."
Bob Earnest, a member of the Chebeague Island Community Association, said islanders are excited about the venture, because lobstering is so vital to the community.
"It's clear the health of the lobster industry of Chebeague is vital to the survival of the year-round community," Earnest said. "As an economic activity, lobstering is the largest provider of jobs on the island and has been for decades. Lobstering is vital to Chebeague's identity and culture."
Island Institute Vice President Robert Snyder said last week connecting food consumers with producers has been successful for fishermen in Port Clyde.
"The success of the Port Clyde Fresh Catch brand of sea food taught us that 'who,' 'how' and 'where' matter just as much as what it tastes like," Snyder said.
By taking more responsibility in selling and marketing their catch, Jordan said the fishermen hope to get a better price for their catch; they're currently only getting $2.75 a pound. However, the fishermen-led company is not intended to be a push against lobster dealers.
"Our message here isn't down with dealers," Jordan said. "I don't think they're making a lot of money in this market either. We're just trying to add value to our product."
The fledgling company claims that Maine's lobster catch has tripled in the last 15 years, but more than 70 percent of Maine's catch is shipped to Canadian processing plants, then re-imported to restaurants without the Maine brand. While the catch remains strong, demand for lobsters is weak, which has pushed the boat price fishermen receive for their catch down $2 a pound from last year's levels.
"Generally, there's a fear that Maine is losing its stature of brand in the marketplace," Jordan said.
For Burgess, the company will also make lobstering more sustainable for the future generations by allowing them to take more responsibility.
"It's exciting," Burgess said. "I think it's going to offer the younger kids an opportunity to eliminate a lot of the dead weight in the industry and help the consumers as well as (fishermen)."
The company launched its Web site, CalendarIslandLobster.com, on Sept. 14, but Jordan said the custom lobster bands probably won't be rolled out until later this year or in early 2010.