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Clawing back to lobster dominance

Maine takes on Canadians in processing catch

Workers sorted boxes inside a lobster-processing plant owned by Linda Bean, who got into the lobster business several years ago by purchasing a wharf near her home in Port Clyde. Workers sorted boxes inside a lobster-processing plant owned by Linda Bean, who got into the lobster business several years ago by purchasing a wharf near her home in Port Clyde. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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ROCKLAND, Maine - Lobster is as connected to this state’s image as its rocky coastline and thick forests. But for years, fishermen and others here say, Canada has been engaged in a kind of identity theft - much of the lobster caught in Maine waters is shipped north of the border to be chopped, frozen or cooked, and packaged. The meat is then resold as a product of Canada across the United States and the world.

That means millions of pounds of Maine lobster lose their local branding, Canadian businesses are able to largely dictate the price, and the state loses out on much-needed jobs and revenue.

Now, some local entrepreneurs are trying to take back the processing business, motivated by a growing market for lobster products, an environmental push to buy local, and a change in state law that makes it easier to sell lobster in parts - tails and claws.

The new processing companies are part of an upswing in Maine’s lobster industry. Last year, 94 million pounds of the spiny bottom-crawlers were hauled from the sea by Maine lobstermen - 66 percent more than a decade ago - generating $313 million, according to state data. But as it has for many years, about half of the catch went to Canada.

That could be changing. Several lobster-processing companies have opened in Maine this summer, hiring local workers to dissect, prepare, and pack the crustaceans. It’s a promising start, say those in the industry, but they acknowledge much work needs to be done if Maine is to wrest control of lobster processing from Canada.

Linda Bean, the 70-year-old granddaughter and heiress of retail magnate L.L. Bean and his company, is by far the most vocal booster of Maine’s lobster industry. Her own firm - Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine - operates a chain of lobster roll stands and seafood restaurants and has created a line of lobster products sold at hundreds of Walmart stores around the country. She bought her own processing factory in 2009 along the seaweed-covered coast of Rockland.

“I would like to see us get outside the grip of Canada and be independent like we used to be in Maine,’’ said Bean. “They’ve had us by the throat.’’

Like Bean, others hope selling processed lobster meat will be good business. While tourists still love to gorge on lobster freshly pulled from the Atlantic and quickly steamed, many diners, restaurants, and supermarkets seek the distinct butter-smothered taste without the mess and fuss.

“Today’s generation is less inclined to want to muck up the kitchen with a big, smelly pot of water,’’ said Greg Hansen, an official with Mazzetta Co., an Illinois firm that recently purchased a lobster company on Spruce Head Island near Rockland. “Supermarkets have moved away from the tanks in the stores.’’

Live Lobster Co., based in Chelsea, Mass., this summer opened a processing plant near Mount Desert Island, and a York man recently started a small factory in that town 70 miles north of Boston. In Tenants Harbor, a few miles from Rockland, a 22-year-old Worcester Polytechnic Institute student is taking time off from school to start a plant on the site of a former mussel factory.

“We’ve definitely seen this mini-explosion of processing this year,’’ said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association in Kennebunk. “People woke up and said, ‘How much of our lobster is going to Canada?’ Maine is catching up and we are building this infrastructure. We want to have ownership of the production.’’

The sheer volume of lobster being hauled onto the Maine shore has been increasing over the last several decades partly because of the careful practices of lobstermen. In keeping with state and federal laws, they throw back breeding lobsters, as well as those that are too small or too large.

Lobster is by the far the state’s most valuable commercial seafood catch, accounting for about 70 percent of last year’s total revenues reported by fisherman at the docks, according to the state Department of Marine Resources. The industry employs tens of thousands of Maine residents directly or indirectly - including fishermen, lobster dealers, bait sellers, equipment suppliers, restaurant owners and workers, and marine scientists, according to the Lobster Institute, a research organization based at the University of Maine in Orono.

Canadian lobster processors began buying more Maine lobsters in the 1990s as the US catch increased and dealers needed somewhere to sell their excess product, said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Nova Scotia-based advocacy organization, the Lobster Council of Canada. The Maine campaign to process lobster locally will increase competitive pressures on Canadian businesses, Irvine said.

“We were wondering why it didn’t happen a long time ago,’’ he said. “It only makes sense to process lobster’’ in Maine.

It wasn’t until 2008 that many in Maine realized the extent of Canada‘s role in lobster processing, when the worldwide credit crisis wreaked havoc on Canadian processors. As a result, demand fell and the northbound movement of Maine lobsters came to a truck-screeching halt. Wholesale lobster prices plummeted by about a dollar a pound in Maine - to about $2.50 directly off the boat - and fisherman struggled to pay their bills.

But lower costs opened new markets for lobster at local chain restaurants. That increased demand and over time the price of lobster slowly rose. It reached about $3.50 a pound earlier this summer before dropping to under $3 now, said McCarron, of the lobstermen’s association. Lobstermen hope that if more processing takes place in Maine, such price swings will be moderated. McCarron said it’s unclear whether that will happen.

Joseph Fessenden, acting deputy commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, said state officials and lobstermen want to increase local processing to benefit the economy and enhance the Maine lobster brand. “Frozen lobster parts can be marketed around the world,’’ he said.

To help Maine lobster businesses better compete with Canada, state officials last year scrapped an antiquated law that prohibited processing companies from splitting lobster tails or selling claws separately from their bodies.

Sensing a business opportunity, Bean decided to get into the lobster business several years ago by purchasing a wharf near her home in Port Clyde. Since then, she has expanded at a brisk pace, buying several more wharfs and a processing plant - all in Maine - and opening a string of cafes and summer stands that sell lobster rolls from the dock at Port Clyde to a street corner in Delray Beach, Fla. Bean said she aims to buy lobsters at a good price from fishermen, and cut out the middlemen - such as dealers and processors - so she can sell to consumers at a lower price.

“The average lobster goes through five hands before it’s eaten. Our objective is to be all those five hands and save all those margins and share the profit with the fishermen,’’ Bean said. “Otherwise, they are going to disappear.’’

Antonio Bussone,president of Live Lobster Co., decided to open a plant in Gouldsboro to reduce by about a third the 6 million pounds of lobsters his company sends to Canada each year. The 10-year-old business specializes in shipping live lobsters to Europe, Asia and the US West Coast.

Bussone said he is starting small in Maine to make sure he gets it right - lobster processing involves painstaking work done mostly by hand, from snapping tails off to picking out meat. “It’s very labor intensive,’’ he said.

And it’s not cheap to get started in the business. Kyle Murdock recently had to scrap his plans to open a lobster processing plant this summer at the site of the shuttered Great Eastern Mussel Farms Inc. in Tenants Harbor. Murdock, who left Worcester Polytechnical Institute last year to start the company, wasn’t able to obtain enough financing to begin operations. He needs about $2.3 million to bring the plant up to date and buy equipment, he said, funding he now hopes to secure during the next year. Murdock believes local processing will allow savings from reduced transportation and storage costs to be passed on to lobstermen.

“After the price crash in 2008, it was all anyone could talk about - if we could bring the value-added process back to Maine,’’ he said.

John Murdock, Kyle’s father and a lobsterman on Monhegan Island, is helping to fund his son’s endeavor partly to support youthful ambition, but also because he believes Maine should be processing its key food product.

“We produce so many lobsters, why send them to a different country to be prepared and sent back?’’ said Murdock, 53, who moved to Maine from his hometown of Reading, Mass., after graduating high school. “Kind of ridiculous.’’

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com