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The Lobster Trap

The economic downturn has hit just about every industry in the world, but few as hard as the sturdy Maine lobster fishery. After decades of doing everything right, lobstermen are about hit bottom. Can innovation save their trade?

Author Edward Lewine Illustration Jorn Kaspuhl

THE FIRST THING the women noticed was how small the dock was. Mother, daughter and granddaughter had driven to Portland last year from Pennsylvania to meet the lobsterman who’d been catching their dinner. They were expecting to find him at a large commercial fishing plant. Instead, they arrived at Hobson’s Wharf, a modest wooden pier in the Old Port with a few boats bobbing beside it, and saw a rugged-looking young man named Curt Brown waiting for them in filthy bib overalls.

At first, conversation was awkward. “It’s never easy for a lobsterman to meet someone out of the blue,” says Brendan Ready, one of two brothers whose company, Catch a Piece of Maine, sells shares in individual lobster traps to clients across the country at prices that range from $69 for a share of one day’s catch to $3,000 for an entire season’s haul. “But the ladies and Curt hit it off . He still calls them, and they’re coming to visit him again this year.”

Think of it as a kind of barnacled twist on Michael Pollan’s adoption of a steer in 2006’s seminal organic food bible, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the resulting “Yuppie, meet your food” phenomenon. If waiters can tell diners where their steak was raised, the Readys reason, and organic farmers can sell their greens in city squares, why can’t a few crustacean-crazed gourmands get to know their lobstermen? And as long as it sells a few more lobsters, the people in Maine are happy to go along. The truth is, these days the lobstermen need all the help they can get.

You may not realize it from the price of lobster at your local fishmonger, but Downeast Maine is crawling with these extravagant arthropods—literally crawling with them—and that’s a leading cause of a near-cataclysmic recession now hitting the region’s lobster fishery. Times are so tough that the famously stolid lobster industry is resorting to some extreme steps to stave off collapse, in some cases, even borrowing from the more progressive, touchy-feely world of sustainable foods.

“You’re covered in mud and seaweed, and at first you feel a little strange having people taking your picture and asking questions,” says Robert Springer, one of the eight lobstermen who sell part of their haul through Catch a Piece of Maine. “But it doesn’t bother me, and I know people enjoy finding out about the lobster business.”

Brendan Ready, 27, and his brother John, 28, say they had around 3,000 customers in 2008, their first year. The key, they say, is to show that lobster is both a sustainable product and one with real personality. When the Readys’ customers buy into a haul, they’re invited to learn about the actual lobstermen who’ll be doing the hauling. There are pictures and bios up on the Catch a Piece of Maine website: Ted Gilfillan prefers fishing in smaller boats that can navigate shallow waters; Jeb Stuart is a grandfather of four who named his boat Babe, after his mother; Robert Springer is an increasingly rare third-generation lobsterman. It’s sort of like a farmers market meets Match.com.

“We decided to develop the lobstermen themselves as characters,” John Ready says.

Meanwhile, in tiny Port Clyde, Linda L. Bean, who happens to be on the board of L.L. Bean Inc., is taking a very different marketing approach. Rather than elevating the product, she’s taking advantage of the glut by turning lobster into an everyday food. Under her “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine” banner, she’s started what will by 2010 be an East Coast chain of lobster roll restaurants stretching from Port Clyde to Delray Beach, Florida.

“We’ve got plenty of lobsters these days,” Bean says. “But if we can’t sell them, then it’s the lobstermen who are going to be the endangered species.”

There was a time, not so long ago, when lobsters were so plentiful in Maine that farmers used to mulch them by the wagonload to fertilize more profitable crops like potatoes and corn. There was even an old law on the books forbidding wardens from feeding prisoners too much lobster. In the late 19th century, lobsters started to become a prized catch. Since the 1950s, the number of lobstermen working the Maine grounds has swelled to around 5,800.

For most of the last decade, lobstermen benefited from rising prices. In hindsight, however, says Jeff Holden, from his desk above the factory floor of the Portland Shellfish Company (one of only a handful of Maine businesses— the rest are in Canada—that process lobster meat for shipment), the Great Lobster Price Collapse of 2008 began right after New Year’s. Oil prices soared, raising the cost of fueling a lobster boat and lowering the discretionary spending of the dining public.

“October was the low,” Holden recalls, adding that business at casinos and cruise ships—which account for a significant portion of Maine lobster sales—also bottomed out. “We had people calling us with lobsters for sale at around $2.50 a pound. That’s a mid-1980s wholesale price.”

How is it that as every other fishery is suffering from empty nets, lobster traps are overflowing? According to Carl Wilson, the chief lobster biologist for the state of Maine, the 2008 catch was around 63 million pounds, close to the largest on record. (A standard haul in the 1980s was around 20 million pounds.) The glut, according to Wilson, is the result of three factors: the over-fishing of cod, which is among the lobster’s most important predators; the gradual warming of the water in the Gulf of Maine, which speeds lobster growth; and, ironically, the conscientious conservation eff orts of the lobstermen.

“What a situation,” says Robin Alden, the executive director of The Penobscot East Resource Center, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable fisheries. “The Maine lobstermen have done everything right, and suddenly the business isn’t there for them. Now the foreclosures are starting to happen.”

If the economic downturn persists— and most think it will—a sizable portion of Maine’s lobstermen, lobster dealers and lobster processors will go out of business.

Few people doubt the coming years are going to be painful, but Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, believes there’s hope. “We sold every lobster in 2008 in the middle of the world economy crashing,” says McCarron, “and that is astounding.”

That’s little consolation to the lobstermen who work from the piers of the Old Port, though. And those are the people Bean and the Readys—and their customers at Catch a Piece of Maine— are concerned about.

“My savings are gone,” says Robert Springer. “I have less help and I run the boat slower to save fuel. It’s been demoralizing, but I see what is happening to people all over the country. I have a job. I’m still standing and I’ll make it through.”

Contributing writer EDWARD LEWINE regrets to say that no lobsters were eaten in the reporting of this story.

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