CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — In a crowded hall on Chebeague Island, a handful of men in thick flannel shirts joked: “How many lobstermen does it take to change a light bulb? … Change?”
But that’s exactly what they were setting out to do. As fishermen in an industry typically slow to change, these men had come together with other islanders and Chebeague’s Dropping Springs Lobster Co. to talk about new directions the company might take to bring higher prices to fishermen by shifting their business model and marketing strategies.
Dropping Springs is not alone – companies up and down the Maine coast have been changing their practices, shortening the distance from boat to plate in response to low boat prices for their catch, a drowning economy and a mass of available technology and ideas.
In general, lobstermen and the lobster industry tend to be very traditional, Marianne LaCroix of the Maine Lobster Council said.
“We’re fishing the same way we were 100 years ago,” LaCroix said, “pulling up individual lobsters in traps.”
It’s good for maintaining the resource, making it hard to over-fish, she added, but it’s also a reflection of the industry’s unwillingness to, for example, change a light bulb.
But in recent years, she said, there have been beacons of change.
The Ready brothers of Portland have developed their own business model, “Catch a Piece of Maine,” which lets consumers “buy” a trap online and have all the lobsters caught in it. Their marketing includes stories of the individual fishermen, video from inside the traps, and other interactive, up-close-and-personal material that connects the consumer to the catch and the people doing the catching.
Brendan and John Ready have added value to their product without fundamentally changing it, LaCroix said, which has been both popular and successful.
Another new idea LaCroix has seen comes out of Freeport, where Jimmy Kuntz and Gina LeDuc have taken the idea of Community Supported Agriculture and brought it to fishing. The CSA business model asks customers to buy shares of a farm in exchange for shares of the crop. The Community Supported Fishery model is no different, providing seed money to fishermen and a fixed number of lobster per week or per season to the customer.
On Chebeague Island, Dropping Springs Lobster Co. is just beginning discussions of how it might change. The company could shorten the distance from its 19 boats to customers’ plate through a CSF-like business, they could also do so by taking over more of the chain their lobsters travel toward someone’s stove by buying trucks, doing their own retail sales, or becoming their own processor. All take significant investment, but could help counteract the fluctuating prices their lobsters get off the boat.
Last fall, when the market fell overboard, Portland lobstermen were getting boat prices of about $2.50 per pound. It was the lowest price fishermen had seen since the 1990s, according to Ben Alfiero, a co-owner of the Harbor Fish Market on Custom House Wharf. Lobster boats in October and November were pulling soft-shell lobsters, which are only marketable to local consumers or processing plants, since they’re not hardy enough to travel.
While hard-shell lobster prices stayed fairly even, Harbor Fish Market had tanks full of soft-shells and nowhere to sell them – consumers were feeling the pinch and were less willing to eat luxury items like lobsters, and Canadian processing plants had just lost all their capital in bank failures.
So prices sank, helping cash-strapped consumers put lobster on the table, but harming fishermen who were also paying astronomical fuel prices, rising ice prices, as well as sternman wages, while trying to feed their own families.
Boat prices have gone back up – this week they were about $5 per pound, down about 50 cents from last January – but lobstermen aren’t catching much. Alfiero said boats this month have gone out once every week or two, while in summer months they’re out every morning. And the state is losing boats to other harbors, where laws are less stringent – many have gone to Massachusetts, he said, where there’s no maximum size limit on dragged lobsters.
Big lobsters a fisherman would have to throw back in Maine, Alfiero said, can bring in $1,000 to $10,000 in extra income when brought to port in the Bay State.
Other seafood is feeling the depression, too, Alfiero said, with the economy forcing cheap prices on Maine haddock and shrimp.
“The consumers are winning,” Alfiero said, “but who’s paying the ultimate price? The fishermen.”
While Alfiero said he doesn’t see many ways his company could change the way it does business, he said that Harbor Fish Market has recently opened an extensive Web site to sell and market its products. With the help of the site, his retail sales have not declined, and are actually slightly up from last year, although wholesale is down.
Other than implementing the Web site, “there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Alfiero said, “except cut margins and look for other outlets,” such as marketing cooked soft-shells. With Superbowl Sunday coming up, he’s hoping he can market more of his product than usual for this time of year.
Chebeague Islanders, meanwhile, are trying to avoid thinking there’s nothing they can do or change.
“Lobstermen catch lobsters,” said Dropping Springs owner John Jordan, “and haven’t really worried about selling before. We spend $30,000 to $500,000 on a business but don’t spend anything on selling lobsters. It’s time to take our future into our own hands.”
With the “Maine lobster” brand strong in consumer’s minds – according to the Maine Lobster Council it’s one of the most recognizable and demanded seafood brands, next to Alaskan salmon – Jordan said Chebeague Island has the opportunity to create an even more marketable product. In the same way that Florida’s Natural orange juice is popular because there’s a photo of the farmer on the carton, and Napa Valley wines are popular because it’s a recognizable and reputable name, and Starbucks is popular because FairTrade practices add value to their product, Dropping Springs Lobster Co. hopes to create an image or value-added product.
Asking the community for help with ideas and resources, Jordan said “we’re not like every other industry looking for a bailout,” but rather seizing the opportunity to “find a creative solution and creative marketing plan.”
Speaking at the Chebeague Island meeting, Dane Somers of the Maine Lobster Council applauded Jordan’s company for seeking change.
“Fundamentally, the (lobster) marketplace has changed over the last two decades, and we haven’t done much to adapt,” Somers said.
Companies like Dropping Springs, Catch a Piece of Maine, and others, he said, prove that fishermen “are not country bumpkins who don’t know what to do. … There’s room for a hundred of these companies in Maine.”
Matthew DeLorme photo
Crates of lobsters float in a tank awaiting sorting and shipping at New Meadows lobster in Portland,