October 23, 2013
Washington County seafood business sets up workers
Gulf of Maine, Inc. using unique approach to land employees
by Tom Groening
PEMBROKE — You can't say Tim Sheehan hasn't been creative in trying to grow his seafood business, Gulf of Maine Inc.
But trying to keep clam diggers working throughout the year—critical for the business, because restaurants want a steady supply—has left him at wit's end. It also has hurt the business.
And it's ironic, in a county that had an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent in July.
One of the creative steps Sheehan has taken is to buy clammers the licenses they need from the state and town, buy the digging and raking equipment and sometimes, even the boots they use. They repay him with their earnings over the first couple of weeks.
He estimates that he's "fronted" money for about two dozen clammers in recent years. Still, that hasn't bought him the loyalty he hoped it would.
Too often, he said, clammers can't afford to lay out the $133 for the state license and between $100 and $200 for a town license, along with about $150 for boots, a roller and a digger.
"Half of them didn't have licenses or equipment," Sheehan said of those who have been providing him with shellfish. "All of a sudden, one would disappear and you'd realize he got caught," clamming without a license.
Still, even by providing licenses and gear, he struggles to keep a crew of diggers providing him with product on a regular enough basis. Some workers leave him to pursue a more lucrative, though temporary, job, like "tipping," cutting branches for Christmas wreaths.
"How do you tell a restaurant in New York City, 'Well, it's wreath season, so we can't supply you with steamers'?" Sheehan asks. "I don't have diggers that will go year-round."
Digging clams is hard work, he readily admits. But he has evidence that if clammers committed to working several hours on most days over the course of the year, they could earn between $16 and $40 an hour. It's not that he wants to impose a Calvinistic work ethic on Washington County. It's just that restaurants want a reliable and steady supplier, he explained.
Sheehan also has been creative with advertising, reasoning that prospective clam diggers may be wary of the job, thinking there's a trick to finding the critters. So he's posted ads on the Craig's List web site, seeking "trench diggers," and dangling that $16-$40 per hour pay.
It wasn't always so tough. Sheehan launched Gulf of Maine Inc. in 2002 as a company that provided sea organisms to colleges and universities, research centers and aquariums.
"The New England Aquarium used to call us," seeking hermit crabs, sea anemones and spending "thousands of dollars at a time." So did Brown, Middlebury and Harvard universities. The business was selling 300-400 different marine species, even different kinds of plankton.
"That's what our bread and butter was," Sheehan said.
But when the recession hit, instead of ordering bloodworms for $5 a piece, those researchers must have decided to head to a local bait shop and buy them at 50 cents a piece, he said.
NORTH BY DOWNEAST
Sheehan, 46, a native of Patten in Aroostook County, earned a degree in biology with a concentration in marine studies at the University of Maine. He settled in Washington County as a biology teacher in Baileyville, then started a seasonal eco-tour business called Tidal Trails. With captain's and master guide licenses, he offered lighthouse tours and charter fishing on his boat.
Then came the sea creatures business. After the recession took its toll on the scientific supply side, Sheehan got into seafood. He provides markets in southern New England with several kinds of seafood, but clams provide a good example of the region's challenges.
"We're in Washington County, which is the toughest of the tough," he said, so he understands the approach many take, which is to rake rockweed, paint houses, dig worms and clams, depending on what is paying best.
In the winter, clam diggers get 80 cents a pound. In the summer, when demand is high, they might get $2 per pound.
"The guys that are good can get a bushel a day," he said, even digging just four hours a day. "If a fellow digs one bushel a day for 300 days a year, and if the price stays at $1.50 per pound, a digger could earn $22,000 a year.
While that's still below poverty levels, it can go a long ways in that area, he said. His sons and some of their friends earned about $10,000 each during the summer months digging clams, he said.
Sheehan has developed an informal relationship with members of the Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe on the nearby Pleasant Point reservation. The majority of his harvesters are tribal members and are reliable, he said.
One of Sheehan's ideas is to use the tribe to brand frozen seafood products and have the Passamaquoddys use their connections to have the shellfish sold to Indian casinos around the country.
If a steady market could be found for frozen seafood, he said, Gulf of Maine could employ people on site to shuck, cook and package all sort of seafood, from clams to lobster.
"If we had 30 people who would dig 30 bushels of clams a day and 10 shuckers," the business would succeed, he said. "We have coolers, we have a forklift."
Sheehan's dilemma is not unique in the region, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Substance abuse remains a problem among the labor pool, he said, which is yet another obstacle.
"If I was in Kenya, buying sewing machines for women to make clothing on, the New York Times would write about me," he said ruefully.
Coverage of Washington County is supported by a grant from the Eaton Foundation.
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