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September 1, 2009

Cooperative building tank to maintain a steady supply of hard shell lobsters

by Sandra Dinsmore

For members of a lobster co-operative in eastern Maine to decide to build a refrigerated tank house in the midst of a worldwide recession takes tremendous courage.

But that is precisely what the 32 members of the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-operative, Inc. did. Their system will be able to hold 23,000 pounds of lobster for either short or long-term. It will also keep lobster from molting, thus providing the customer with consistent hard shell product year round.

The co-op decided to have the refrigerated holding system built last fall when the price of lobster dropped to $2 per lb. For years the co-op sold to a single buyer, accepting whatever he offered on a given day. "When the price was $4 per lb. we were able to get a fair market value for our lobster," said co-op employee and former acting manager Christopher Arnett, "but when the price went down, we went on the open market."

Arnett and the co-op members found themselves shocked by all the different prices being offered by dealers. He summed up the general feeling, saying, "There is not enough money in this business for all the hands dipping in [the lobster pipeline]." The result: the decision to sell only top-quality hard shell product for which they would be able to demand top dollar. They should be able to do this, stated Nova Scotia lobster dealer Ronald O'Connell, of West Bay Fisheries, in Clark's Harbor, Nova Scotia, who has such a system, because lobster, when kept at a temperature of 36 degrees Fahrenheit, won't go into the shed process.

Refrigerated holding systems took hold in Maine in the 1980s and 1990s, according to Ronald Doane, of Trenton's Atlantic Sea Tanks, the company installing the co-op's holding system.

William Wolf, president of Wolf Marine Systems of Brooklyn, said his parents started building and installing refrigerated holding systems back in the 1930s. His company installs refrigerated systems in Maine and worldwide because, "If you can pack lobster at between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the mortality will be 2 percent," he said. "If you pack at about 45 degrees, there will be 15 to 20 percent mortality on arrival."

During a manager search this past spring, the co-op board came across the application of Robert Harmon, a 34-year Bath Iron Works veteran and computer expert and chose him. Asked why the co-op would hire someone from outside the lobster industry, Harmon replied, "Some of the thoughts were that I would bring a perspective from outside the business; maybe the focus would be a little bit different from what it has been in the past."

"The overhead of our storage facility is huge," Arnett said of the new mortgage. "We're assuming the overhead of the middleman." He then stated, "The ultimate goal: lobster from the trap to the consumer will be realized by [business from] the Web site." He admitted that although they've never dealt with deads or insurance before, "Ron [Doane] has made a lot of expensive mistakes that we don't have to make because he did it for us." Arnett said Doane is teaching co-op employees how to grade and store.

Harmon also spoke of the co-op's plans and how members hope the new system will bring more profit. "One of my issues, now that I've been involved with this," he said, "is the number of facilities that I see selling Canadian lobster in the state of Maine. I went to my favorite seafood restaurant in southern Maine and all the lobsters in the tank had Product of Canada bands on them." He added that he had talked to one of the co-op's suppliers in the Bangor area, who told Harmon his company will only buy and sell Canadian lobster. "They don't even want to deal with Maine lobster," Harmon said; "I was shocked."

But it's not that Canadian lobsters are less expensive than Maine lobsters, said Susan Bayley, of Bayley's Lobster Pound, in Pine Point; "It is that they are a different quality product. Canadian lobsters will live longer and have more meat in them," she said. Many Maine restaurants opt for local soft shells because they are so much cheaper and because they can run competitive specials, Bayley said.

A lot of restaurants, though, (especially higher-end ones) want only hard shells, and since their suppliers can't get a consistent supply of Maine hard shells, they buy them from Canada. She said she had no doubt that the restaurant Harmon spoke of requests only hard shell lobster and is willing to pay a premium for Canadian product, probably because of having a tank filled with lobster for diners to choose from.

"If they want to keep them alive in a retail restaurant tank for longer periods of time," she said, "they would want a nice, strong lobster, not a Maine shedder."

Bayley said she and other dealers "have tried to explain to the Task Force on the Economic Sustainability of Maine's Lobster Industry and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council that many times of the year dealers need to be able to buy and sell Canadian lobsters for their customers because the properties of Maine lobsters do not lend themselves to anything but very local sales and processing. You can't ship them," she said, "and they won't live long at all." This holds true even for Maine hard shells, which can be held from three to four weeks in coldwater (tubes) systems whereas Nova Scotia hard shells will last eight weeks.

"I find it frustrating to watch everyone want to "brand" Maine lobsters," Bayley said. "I don't think they understand about consistency of product and supply. Restaurant owners expect to have a consistent supply of a good product year 'round, and we have to give those restaurant owners what they ask for. If we don't, they start buying something to replace the lobster, like farmed shrimp, Caribbean lobster, or crab." She said she finds this especially true of restaurants in other states.

What Winter Harbor is doing by installing its long- and short-term refrigerated holding system is providing consistent hard shell quality lobsters. Harmon explained, "The plan is to grade out the high-quality hard shells to put in the tank and maintain a consistent restaurant-grade quality. This will allow us to maintain a higher quality for our customers." By doing this, Wolf said, "A good holding system can pay for itself in a short time if they're doing volume business and are not overly greedy." Within months, if all goes as planned, the Winter Harbor co-op should be dealing in a consistent quality product that can be shipped anywhere in the world.



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