BANGOR — Consumers in China are buying Maine lobster in robust and growing numbers as years of work to build relationships with businesses there are beginning to bear fruit, industry leaders here said.
For decades, international demand for the crustacean has enjoyed a spike at Christmas and New Years. Now, the lobster industry has added the lunar New Year, celebrated in Asian countries, this year in February, to that list.
With growing demand, a group including former Bangor mayor Jerry Palmer and Bar Harbor lobster tour operator John Nicolai wonder whether shipping more lobster from Bangor International Airport could be in the cards. They met with airport staff in January to discuss the idea and plan more meetings to include other industry players.
“I want to see Bangor branding wherever we can do it,” Palmer said. “We could do some things here that other places can only dream about. There are still a lot of logistical issues to work out, like backhauling. You can’t have a cargo plane do a round trip if it’s empty one way.”
He’s passionate about Bangor’s strengths, including what he calls a solid work ethic. He said Bangor airport personnel could provide better handling than larger airports like Boston, which could improve product quality.
“The [airport] infrastructure is unbelievable,” said Annie Tselikis, director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. “It’s huge, and we’re not using it to its full potential.” It may be a matter,” she said, “of getting all the different silos to work together.”
Airport Director Tony Caruso agrees. He’s interested, he said, in learning more about current shipping patterns and “finding synergies” between existing groups and efforts.
“All of us in the industry are excited about the catch, which is over 100 million pounds again,” said Jeffrey Bennett of the Maine International Trade Commission (MITC). “We’re all working to find as many opportunities as we can on the demand side. We’re extremely pleased with what’s been going on in the Far East.”
Tselikis pointed to the work of large dealers over several years to lay the groundwork for growing into new markets. “Going into the Asian market does not happen overnight. You need additional permitting and certifications. It’s not easy work. It’s expensive. There’s a lot of investment in market research in-country.”
In 2012, Maine Governor Paul LePage and business leaders traveled to China on a trade mission. “It wasn’t specifically around seafood,” Bennett said, “but we timed the trip to coincide with a large Asian Seafood Show.” MITC regularly organizes international activity including incoming and outgoing business delegations.
A few large Maine lobster dealers and wholesalers, like Stephanie Nadeau at the Lobster Company in Kennebunkport, had been traveling to China to talk lobster for several years prior to the 2012 trip.
Later this month, Bennett said, “we have 19 international buyers coming in to meet with suppliers the day before the [Boston seafood] show starts.”