More Maine Lobstermen Selling Directly to Consumers

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network – September 14,2009.

More Maine Lobstermen Selling Directly to Consumers
Reported By: Josie Huang,

With the demand for lobster down and lobster prices below $3 a pound, a group of 29 fishermen who lobster in Casco Bay is hoping to turn around their fortunes by adopting a new business model: a model predicated on the notion that diners not only want to know where their food comes from, but who caught it.

On a Portland wharf, lobsters hauled by the fishermen of Calendar Islands Lobster Company are in holding cells of sorts, large tanks filled with water pumped in from the bay.

“As you can see these are larger, select lobsters that are pretty good quality. See all the scratches. These are very lively, healthy lobsters that I think people would be thrilled to have on their dinner plate,” says lobsterman John Jordan.

Jordan is President of Calendar Islands. Many of the lobsters in these tanks end up at a processing plant. But if things go as planned, some of these lobsters will be sold directly to grocery stores and other retailers at a higher profit.

Jordan says retail lobsters will be hand-selected for quality, and wear bands bearing a number code representing the fisherman who caught the crustacean. “So that if somebody in Dallas buys these lobsters, or somebody in Denver, they can type in the number code and go on to our Web site, so they can read about the lobsterman that actually caught their lobsters, learn a little about their lives and more about their product and everything and really know right where their lobster came from,” Jordan says.

It’s a model that’s been tried before in the fisheries industry in Maine. In Port Clyde, fishermen sell haddock, monkfish and other species directly to people who pay for a share of the catch, much like you would at a community-supported farm.

Smaller lobstering co-ops are also trying the direct sales approach. But the Island Institute says the Calendar Islands venture is the largest of its kind among lobstermen.

“I think one of the things going for this is that this is an era of increasing locavores,” says Peter Ralston, Executive Vice President of the Island Institute, which has been helping Calendar Islands with its business plan.

Calendar Islands has yet to land a contract with a retailer, but the Island Institute is confident enough about its prospects that it has pledged about $43,000 to the company if it can match that amount. “People want to know where their food’s coming from — is it harvested in a sustainable way?” Ralston says. “This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. It is part of a larger consciousness to make the world a more sustainable place.”

“I think it’s fantastic what these guys are doing,” says John Ready, who with his brother, founded Catch a Piece of Maine, which works much like what Calendar Islands is proposing but on a smaller scale. Since late 2007, the company has been selling shares of lobster traps belonging to seven lobstermen for clients across the country.

They were the first lobstermen in Maine to appeal to locavores over the Internet, by posting profiles of the lobstermen and even arranging meetings between them and clients. “You can be that angry, more old-fashioned type person and be upset that someone’s copying you, or you can look at it and say ‘Hey, you know what, there’s plenty of market out there, there’s plenty of opportunity,'” Ready says.

Ready says other lobster co-ops have asked him and his brother for assistance, and he’s been more than willing to lend a hand because everybody believes they can benefit by promoting the same brand: Maine lobster.