By Liz Graves and Sarah Hinckley
MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — Lobstermen and sea farmers, and the buyers who work with them, are experimenting with new ways to buy and sell as the normal distribution systems have ground nearly to a halt and prices have taken a nosedive.
Ron Doane is the manager of lobster dealer RDR in Trenton. The market disruptions have been tricky for everyone, he told the Islander Saturday.
“My compassion is with the fishermen because you can’t run a company without them,” he said. Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher asked fishermen in a March 16 statement to “refrain from landing product if there’s no market for it.”
But fishermen have so much money invested in their boats and gear, Doane said, that’s a tall order.
“It’s so hard to understand with no chicken or meat on the shelves why we would not ask these men to go fishing,” he said. Even with less demand from restaurants and exports shut down, grocery stores are going strong.
“Canadian and all retail markets just went up $1 yesterday and we’re still paying better than them.”
A grassroots lobster market is set to come to Mount Desert Island beginning this Saturday.
The market, organized by Maine’s Working Waterfront – Seafood Connect, was set to be held at 55 Main Street in Southwest Harbor, a lot owned by lobsterman Holly Masterson and the location of a planned new outdoor market called Acadia Vendors. Buyers will be able to stay in their cars and pick up lobster, crab and oysters.
The Seafood Connect project was organized by Ali Farrell, a Camden photographer and author who began connecting lobstermen with buyers within her friend network in the last couple of weeks. At events in Camden and Belfast last weekend, more than 3,000 pounds of lobster was sold, she said.
Masterson is one of the female fishermen profiled in a book Farrell is writing, called “Pretty Rugged” and due out later this year.
Licensed lobstermen are allowed to sell direct to consumers, Department of Marine Resources spokesperson Jeff Nichols said. Normally, dealer reporting is an important source of data for the department on how much lobster is being landed and sold, and these informal transactions aren’t reported in the same way.
But “because we’re in a really slow time of the year and very few pounds are actually being landed right now, there’s not that much of a concern that the loss of any data is going to impact things like the stock assessment,” he said.
“We do capture some data through the 10 percent harvester reporting. We’re going to continue to monitor the situation and make sure if we do see a change that we take whatever action is necessary.”
Fisherman Ronnie Musetti, with business partner Adam Fraley, has been working on setting up a new business in Northeast Harbor, the Nor’Easter Lobster Pound and Market, at the Kimball Terrace Inn in Northeast Harbor.
They’re still working on the physical space and hope to open this summer, but meanwhile, the business has begun doing local delivery of fresh lobster.
“I came up with the idea because I stopped hauling for a few weeks,” Musetti. “The price got as low as $2.50, and for the first time really in my life I just stopped tending my traps.
“One of my friends from Deer Isle had really good luck selling his catch in a parking lot, so I thought, my lobster business isn’t making any money right now, I might as well go and try to sell ‘em through the (new) market. It’s something that we didn’t really plan on doing.”
But it seems to be a natural fit. “If people want ‘em delivered even when things are back to normal I think we’ll continue doing it.”
Monday was the first delivery day for the Nor’Easter, including live lobster, crab and oysters from the Bar Harbor Oyster Company.
Bar Harbor Oyster, which holds licenses for wholesale and direct sales, has also been finding success with Facebook.
“It’s amazing, the network on social media and the sales platform that it provides,” said owner Joanna Fogg, “particularly here in a community where people are so committed to looking out for one another.”
The company’s primary lease sites freeze over, and they sink the oyster cages for the winter. But this year they acquired a smaller, limited purpose lease that allows some winter harvest. Most of those oysters are sold directly to local restaurants.
Direct consumer sales “have been a smaller part of our market,” Fogg said, but “we are tyring to figure out how do we build that if the restaurants don’t come back.”
Part of that will be teaching people how to shuck their own oysters. “It’s one of the hangups with oysters, people are intimidated about shucking them, to turn what looks like a muddy rock and turn it into a really beautiful dish.” They’re also sharing recipes for classic dishes and sauces, like oysters Rockefeller and Mignonette sauce with vinegars, shallot and cracked pepper.
Connecting directly with local customers over Facebook is something Masterson has been doing for a long time, especially with scallops.
“Selling my scallops, I’ve always had that cooler system,” where customers can pick up orders and leave a payment. “When (Facebook group) Bar Harbor Barter and Swap came out, that was one of the first things I utilized on there.” Her operation has a dealer permit for scallops.