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April 1, 2009
Article

Task force hears concerns from lobstermen

by Sandra Dinsmore

How to get a better price for lobster, how to better market it, lack of trust between fishermen and dealers, sustainability of the fishery and how better to diversify the fisheries and take the pressure off lobster: These issues and more held everyone's attention for four hours on March 10 in Ellsworth at the task force's third public hearing on the state's lobster industry.

Governor John Baldacci appointed the eight-member Task Force on the Economic Sustainability of Maine's Lobster Industry in the wake of the sudden collapse of the lobster boat price last October.

Three panels, representing fishermen; technology and fishing communities; and science presented the task force their ideas on its many goals. Those goals include: looking for ways to expand processing in Maine; increasing the range of value-added lobster products; identifying possible changes in terms of volume, quantity and timing of lobsters landed; identify the best management practices for harvesters and dealers to increase profits and the quality of the lobster; and looking at ways to promote the Maine lobster brand.

"We're at the mercy of whoever for what we're going to get for our catch," Mt. Desert fisherman Jon Carter said. "I'm not in favor of cutting traps."

The state's Department of Marine Fisheries (DMR) commissioner, George Lapointe, and a task force member, had broached the subject of reducing the number of traps at a task force update held March 6 at the Maine Fishermen's Forum, to the consternation of fishermen and dealers. But at the Ellsworth hearing, the only voices in favor of lowering the number of traps were those of the scientists.

Although in the short term, lobster biology looks pretty good, University of Maine's Robert Steneck, of the Darling Marine Center, said, "We have a hyperabundance of lobster," which he described as in excess of two lobster per square meter from Penobscot Bay to Casco Bay.

Task Force Member Philip Conkling, president of the Island Institute (which publishes the Working Waterfront newspaper), asked if that increase in lobster corresponds to an increase in landings. Steneck replied that the increased abundance is driving the large increase in lobster landings.

He explained that there has been an expansion in habitat due to what he called a functionally domesticated marine ecosystem in which, he said, "We have cultivated a lucrative monoculture." Fishermen call it open-ocean farming, meaning that small lobster flit in and out of the increased number of traps feeding and growing till they reach legal size.

"Lobster now accounts for 85 percent of all landed value of harvested marine resources in Maine," Steneck said and warned, "If we suffered an epizootic disease, we don't have a Plan B. Monocultures do not have a good track record of sustainability. We need to diversify." In his view, "An equitable" reduction in traps and effort would improve fishing economics and reduce whale entanglement.

Speaking to what he called the three Es: Expectations, Economics, and Effort, Carl Wilson, a Department of Marine Fisheries biologist, said, "We landed 90 million lbs. in 1993 and will land between 60 ands 70 million lbs. this year. We should be celebrating the fact that we landed 70 million lbs., not complaining. We have too high a reliance on the resource."

But fisherman Robert Beal, of the Beals-Jonesport co-op, warned, "If you cut traps, don't cut them in half; [fishermen] will go bankrupt." He went on, "I can't see trying to solve world economic problems on the backs of lobster fishermen." And Carter noted if you fish fewer traps, you haul them more often.

Another problem, that lobstermen fish in summer when product quality is at its worst, brought much discussion. The length of its coastline exacerbates Maine's problem because as one moves east the water grows colder. Stonington fisherman Bob Williams, speaking from the floor, explained, "We get the heft of [shedders] in August," but "by the time Cutler get theirs in November, the Canadians are open." Williams was saying that by November, Cutler fishermen, then selling shedders, have to compete with hardshell southwest Nova Scotia fishermen, who don't fish during shedder season.

Dana Rice, a member of the Board of Advisors of the Lobster Institute, talked about considering joint-maketing with Canada and whether to certify the Maine lobster fishery as a sustainable fishery.

Carter, who refers to himself as an independent lobster catcher, raised another long-standing problem: trust between fisherman and dealer when he said, "When dealers tell me things, I don't totally believe what I'm being told." Despite acknowledging, "... the world economy is in a mess," Carter said, "We all feel we're being taken advantage of."

This lack of trust seemed to be the crux of the problem between fisherman seller and dealer buyer. In answer to a question from Task Force Member James Nimon, of the state's Department of Economic and Community Development, about how fishermen could have a better relationship with dealers, Carter spoke for many when he replied, "I don't know how."

Leroy Bridges, a Deer Isle lobster fisherman, former Down East Lobstermen's Association president and the Whale Take Reduction Team member, although not at the meeting, is unusual in that he speaks highly of his dealer, Conary Cove poundkeeper Basil Heanssler.

At the start of the hearing, Task Force Chairman Ronald L. Phillips, of Coastal Enterprises, Inc. of Wiscasset, in introducing Kristin Bailey, of The Moseley Group, touted the group's experience by saying that it has an awareness of both sides of marketing techniques. Using the metaphor of push and pull (pushing a product into a market or creating market demand first, which pulls the product through a system to get it to market), Philips cited The Moseley Group's experience with cranberry growers in Massachusetts and coffee growers in Central America.

Philips also said that when Bailey had been the executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, "She distinguished herself by wanting to add value."

Among slides of industry comments gathered by the Lobster Institute Director Robert Bayer, one, from Grand Manan Fishermen's Association's Brian Guptill, sounded like a call for the Mosely Group: "Nobody's promoting our industry like the cheese and the milk's and everybody else that's producing products," Guptill said, "So I think the industry's got to do a better job of promoting the product as a healthy product to the regular person."

After reviewing a dozen proposals, The Moseley Group, a consulting firm to the worldwide food and beverage industry, was hired in February to help the task force come up with a strategic plan for the lobster industry, according to a task force press release. "Ultimately Moseley stood out from the rest by describing an approach to generating a new business model that would engage all sectors of the industry, with the goal of raising profitability for everyone," said Philips, in the press release.

The consulting firm will be paid using money from the state's lobster license plate fund.

Although no one at the meeting took issue with the choice of Kristen Bailey and The Moseley Group as the task force's consultant, Bridges had some concerns. "How could you expect someone who worked for the promotion council, whose job was to promote lobsters, be expected to come up with something new, different, or genius?" he said. "You're asking someone to engage in a paradigm shift: creating a vision of how you're going to change what has been normal for years. What's she going to accomplish that will be new? How can you expect different results this time? There seems to be some type of interest conflict there."

Moseley was picked because its proposal was the most comprehensive and looked the entire business model from harvester to consumer, said Task Force Member Patrice McCarron. She said that Bailey's role as former director of the promotion council was seen as "a major asset" and that she was very well respected in that job.

 Since the work has to be done in a matter of weeks, "she has the ability to hit the ground running and make all the critical contacts," said McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "She is definitely somebody who gets it-she knows her way through the lobster industry, and I think that is a very critical skill that we need to actually get to our recommendations."

 

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