ROCKPORT — The middle stages of the supply chain for Maine lobster, how product gets between the wharf and its final destination in the live or processed market, are complicated and difficult to track.
“I think one of the most amazing things about this industry is that every single lobster that is landed is bought and sold,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. “Whether 300 pounds or 3,000 pounds, all of those lobsters are bought. We don’t turn people away at the wharf.”
A local co-op or private wharf on its own would struggle to reach new or distant markets, or to ship cost effectively, she said. “That’s why they [wholesalers] exist, to be able to access those bigger markets. They want to be shipping volume, want to make sure your product gets there as fast as it can” and in good condition, she said. “It’s not like the potato industry. There are no previously arranged relationships. It’s a complicated supply chain. Storage and shipping is labor-intensive, cost-intensive work.”
Some politicians, marketers and fishermen talk about fierce competition between the Maine lobster industry and its counterpart in Canada. But many wholesalers and processors do business on both sides of the U.S. – Canada border. Garbo Lobster and East Coast Seafood, joint operators of the Maine Fair Trade processing plant in Gouldsboro, are two such companies.
East Coast Seafood CEO Michael Tourkistas said last year that attempts to “capitalize” on the Maine name for branding should be done in a “soft” way. “We need to tell the story,” he said. “It’s about the people, the environment, the sustainability, the community – rather than Maine lobster is good, and others are bad.”
From a biological perspective, Maine and Canadian lobsters are identical.
On the Canadian side, Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea has been promoting a “lobster levy” proposal to fund a Canadian lobster marketing initiative. The proposal was unanimously voted down in February by a group of Nova Scotia lobster buyers.
East Coast Seafood operates a biennial “Lobster Academy” in New Brunswick to bring buyers, importers and other industry leaders together and strengthen ties. The academy is “dedicated to increasing the value of Homarus americanus worldwide,” according to materials.
The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine also brings together players from both sides of the border, working with the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Foundation in Canada to host an annual Canadian/U.S. Lobsterman’s Town Meeting.
Some of the tension between Maine and Canadian fishermen is about the price of lobster. In 2012, the early shed and resulting glut led to protests in which some Canadian fishermen blockaded delivery of Maine lobster to processing plants.
“2012 was a big wake-up call,” Tselikis said. “As a producer, if you make too much, then you take a hit. But dealers and wholesalers have made a big investment in infrastructure since then. People will be much better prepared if it happens again.”
Some dealers have added tank systems and increased storage capacity “to accommodate excess of product when the market isn’t as strong,” said Tim Harkins of Rocky Coast Lobster in Boothbay Harbor. “There are some dealers who are doing some small-scale processing. They’ve invested in a certified picking room to be in compliance with state and federal regulations.” At his firm, he said, he hired a few more people to run a “cook and pick” operation. They also sent employees to food safety training.
Product quality is a crucial link in keeping market options open, Hugh Reynolds of Green Head Lobster in Stonington told the Maine Lobstermen’s Association annual meeting earlier this month. Reynolds sits on the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative board.
“There are new markets coming available in Asia,” he said. Because of the timing of holidays there, “it’s a great fit for the Maine lobster business.”
The idea that it’s impossible to get a soft-shell lobster alive to Asia is a myth, he said. “We can do that just as well as a hard-shell lobster as long as we keep the stress down … You can ship product overseas alive, it just takes work. It’s remarkable what can be done when it’s done properly.
“What we’re asking to do is take a creature out of the ocean from your boat and get it on a 50-hour transit, shoved in a Styrofoam box, put back in some sort of aquatic system where it can regain its strength and then be sold for very a good dollar over there,” he said. “This business won’t grow unless fishermen and dealers invest in technology and put energy into making the business better. It starts from the time the trap hits the rail. If at any point, we slam the crate down and puncture the shell, that lobster’s done. It will not make the trip.”
During storage, shipping and handling, Reynolds said, variables such as temperature, pH and particulates in the water must be carefully controlled. “The lobster’s gills are like an air filter. The lobster needs to suck as much oxygen out of the water as it can when it’s put back in a tank.”
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