After price crashes, how Maine can market its iconic lobster and claw its way to the top

The Maine lobster industry has survived two price crashes during the past five years. The first followed the 2008 financial crisis when demand for all premium seafood collapsed, and the second was in 2012, following a glut of lobsters hitting the market early in the season.  The effect of these two crashes — one from too little demand, the other from too much supply — has led to a great deal of soul-searching among lobstermen and even to unprecedented displays of concerted action.

Some lobstermen have done the unthinkable by paying dues and joining a union, while others have agreed to support a license surcharge to increase the budget for marketing their lobsters. It will be interesting to see which approach will produce measurable results — political organization vs. economic investment.

For years the marketing of Maine lobsters was hardly necessary. After all, Maine lobsters have been one of the most widely admired brands in the country, and they more or less sold themselves. True, there was a small, mostly moribund organization called the Maine Lobster Promotion Council that spent a few hundred thousand dollars per year to “market” Maine lobsters, but the effort was laughably small and inconsequential.

And the promotion board was composed of industry insiders whose fundamental interests were incompatible with each other. Maine’s lobstermen want high boat prices; lobster processors who produce lobster meat want low boat prices; and Maine’s lobster dealers are middlemen who primarily want a steady supply to earn their modest commissions. If you wanted to design a marketing program guaranteed not to work, you would create the old promotion council.

The new marketing program is called the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, and the members of the new board indicate the kinds of strategies in which the group might invest its first million dollars.

The 11-member board includes two ex-officio state agency heads, including the commissioner of marine resources, along with the chief executive of the Maine Tourism Association. Then we have a Bar Harbor town councilman who helped spearhead a local effort to supply Maine lobsters to the 100 or so cruise ships that sail into port each summer instead of relying on Canadian lobsters they had been serving.

There are also two dealers on the board and one processor — owner of Luke’s Lobster, a chain of lobster roll outlets that started in New York City and has now expanded to nine restaurants in four cities and employs about 100 people. Then there is a branding company owner — who is the wife of a prominent lobsterman — and two other lobstermen from Stonington and Tenant’s Harbor.

For the marketing collaborative to be deemed successful by lobstermen, who after all are paying the lion’s share of the bills, the so-called “boat price” of lobsters will need to increase in the next few years. The marketing collaborative currently is benefiting from a bit of a tailwind as lobster prices have rebounded this fall from recent historic lows.

Most lobstermen are getting more for their lobsters than at any time in the last four to five years simply because there was less of a supply of soft-shelled “shedders” this summer when prices typically plummet and processors take advantage of such prices to fill their freezers full of lobster meat. This fall, lobster processors were not able to fill their orders with cheaper soft-shelled lobsters and consequently have had to compete with the live lobster market that pays more for hard-shelled lobsters, according to Dave Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

As a result of having all these buyers in the market at the same time, the boat prices have risen, according to Cousens “by a dime a week,” throughout most of the fall. Quite a few Maine lobstermen may be able to pay down their debts from the past several years of break-even fishing.

For most $300 million industries, it probably wouldn’t take a lot to convince its members of the need to invest 1 percent of the harvest in a marketing and branding effort, but don’t forget that the Maine lobster industry is made up of 5,000 independent businessmen who don’t easily change their minds.

And don’t forget if you ask three different lobstermen for their opinions, you are likely to get five different points of view.

 

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Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.