CRANBERRY ISLES — In 1978, Bruce Fernald and Dave Thomas went to consult with an attorney about starting a fishermen’s cooperative and left the attorney’s office with a contract.
“We had a purchase and sale agreement and away we went,” said Thomas. They were purchasing an existing lobster buying business, one that had been operated by Lee Ham for nearly two decades. Ham put the dock up for sale just as Thomas, Fernald and other fishermen from the island were contemplating creating a member-owned cooperative.
The co-op began with about 25 members, Thomas said, and the first couple of years of the operation were bumpy.
“We almost went under the second year. We were making basic business mistakes. Whatever problems we had were our own making.”
They were able to turn things around and this year the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-op is celebrating 40 years with 28 members.
“It’s a way to make more money and have more control over your own destiny,” said Thomas.
Most of the members have a direct connection to Little Cranberry Island. If they don’t live there year round, they grew up on the island or summered there.
“It’s always been about kids within the community getting their licenses,” said Marc Nighman, general manager of the co-op. “I think we’ve got a unique group of guys here who all work really well.”
Members sell their catch to the co-op and buy bait and fuel from the co-op. As a group, the cooperative uses almost 100,000 gallons of fuel a year, according to Nighman.
“You get the benefit of purchasing power as well as selling power,” he said. “Our average fuel price is less. We do pay more for bait. That’s mainly because we’re on an island, if we were on the mainland that would be different.”
Bait use can vary according to the fishermen’s preference, but “we go through a lot of bait,” said Fernald. “You get 25 boats going [at] five to ten bushel a day, that’s a lot of bait.”
For the members of the cooperative, many of whom learned from Ham, their approach has an environmental focus with a goal of creating a sustainable industry.
“I’ve got a group of more forward-thinking guys,” said Nighman. “These guys are multi-generational fishermen.”
“Sustainable”, “traceable” and “Maine-caught” are taglines of the cooperative’s new marketing push. Fernald jokes that the fishermen on Islesford were conservationists before conservationists were cool.
“My guys go out there on the water and pick up trash. They care,” said Nighman. “I think part of that is just an island mentality for these guys.”
From the time the fishermen bring lobsters onto their boats, he says, the animal receives the best care in transport possible to deliver a quality product.
“The fishermen understand it’s important. They will police themselves and police each other. We’ve implemented things here that other places don’t do.”
Within the lobster fishing industry, buyers will accept three percent shrinkage for water weight or dead lobsters, Nighman explained. If the percentage is higher, they won’t pay for the additional weight they can’t use.
“Our average shrinkage is zero to one percent,” he said.
Because of this, Nighman says, the co-op receives a rebate from processors for keeping their shrinkage low.
“I’ve got the two biggest processors in Maine,” he said. The co-op currently works with Ready Seafood Company in Portland and Cape Seafood in Saco. “None of our lobsters go to Canada to be processed any more.”
An average weekly weight of lobsters hauled inland during peak season, is about 75,000 pounds, but no one really likes to talk about the numbers.
“Some days a little bit more, some days a little bit less,” said Thomas. He fishes five days a week, “as long as the weather will allow us. That will come to a screeching halt soon.”
For the last couple of years there has been a display at the Islesford Historical Museum featuring lobster fishing on the island. Labeling themselves as citizen scientists, it shows how generations of Islesford residents have contributed to learning how to fish in a sustainable manner.
“This exhibit explores how a community of highly creative and independent fishermen and women has united to work in harmony for the good of their industry and their community,” a statement on the museum’s website reads.
Over the last couple of years the cooperative has seen a decline in the number of pounds caught.
“The whole state is in a decline,” said Nighman. “The lobsters are definitely migrating east. They’re heading to colder waters… We hit 64.7 degrees one day. That’s just really warm for here. They really don’t like warm water.”
In recent years, the co-op has also experimented with branching out.
Three years ago they opened a small store meant to sell water, ice cream and gifts to visitors. According to Fernald, in its first year the store sold $10,000 in ice cream alone. Once beer and wine were added to the cooler, revenue from the new venture quickly exceeded the initial investment.
This year, the co-op has opened a food wagon with a limited, quick-service menu for visitors. Between the two side businesses and the dock employees, the co-op has five year-round and 16 part-time employees.
“It created jobs for 11 people out here on the island,” said Nighman, noting most are seasonal and part-time.
Both Fernald and Thomas, each 67 years young, still spend their days on the water and are thankful for the cooperative.
“It’s been a good thing,” said Fernald. “We’ve got a good bunch of guys. You can see what can happen when a bunch of guys work together.”
When Ham died in 2012, he was honored by a parade of fishing boats moving single file through “the gut” to surround Weaver’s Rock, within sight of his childhood home.