ROCKLAND — With overseas markets shaky at best, the leaders of Maine’s $1.4 billion lobster industry came together Wednesday to talk about how to drive up demand and get top dollar in the one market they can count on — the United States.
This is a conversation that began long before China slapped a 25 percent tariff on U.S. lobsters, closing the door on a $128.5 million a year market, or the European Union inked its trade deal with Canada, driving down our European exports by 27 percent.
But industry leaders say these international trade challenges make it more important than ever to agree on a strategy of how to use the industry’s limited marketing dollars to sell more Maine lobster to U.S. consumers.
Agreement does not come easy in an industry made up of fishermen, dealers, processors and distributors. Each of these groups has very different points of view, and hold at least one seat on the board of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
The collaborative is the industry’s branding arm, recently reauthorized by state statute through 2021 and bankrolled by surcharges on state lobster fishing and dealer licenses. The fees range from $165 a year for a solo lobsterman to $4,000 for high-volume processors.
On Wednesday, the collaborative held a brainstorming session to help shape its mission going forward and bring unity to a group that was sharply divided over how to spend its $2.2 million a year budget even before recent tariffs tanked overseas exports.
Lobster dealers want to find a way to boost demand for all lobster products, whether it be new-shell or hard-shell lobster, year-round, said Annie Tselikis, the director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, a group of about 30 large lobster dealers and processors.
In the past, dealers have complained that the collaborative’s strategy of marketing Maine new-shell lobster to chefs didn’t translate into increased sales, even in U.S. restaurants, or increase boat prices for Down East fishermen who land new-shell lobsters after the tourist season is over.
“I think we have a demand problem right here in the U.S.,” Tselikis said Wednesday. “There is tons of opportunity in this country for building the lobster market. There is opportunity in middle America that is untapped. There is opportunity in the West that is untapped.”
Tselikis urged the board to spend more time and budget to reach high-volume distributors that can sell seafood across the country. She noted that some chefs who had attended the group’s restaurant events couldn’t even get Maine new-shell lobster when they tried.
But the three lobstermen board members, led by board Chairman Frank Gotwals of Stonington, and at least one of the dealers, Hugh Reynolds of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, said they like the new-shell strategy.
“I feel like we’re at a tipping point,” said Cyrus Sleeper, a South Thomaston lobsterman. “Chefs want to put new-shells on the menu. They love how it tastes, better than hard-shell. We have to make it easier for them to make that happen, but we’re almost there. Give it more time.”
New-shells — recently molted lobsters whose shells are not yet hard – account for 80 percent of what Maine fishermen catch, Reynolds said. But Maine dealers often buy and re-sell Canadian hard-shell lobsters, which fetch a higher price and are easier to ship abroad, he said.
Collaborative Director Matt Jacobson agreed the group should spend time making sure the chef who wants new-shell can get it, but said it had to be careful not to use a state-organized fund to help specific dealers. It didn’t help that some dealers refuse to sell new-shell, he said.
Joe Frydl, the consultant leading the session, drew a makeshift graph on the white board that showed when Maine lobster landings were highest — from late July into November— and noted that was also when lobster prices were lowest.
“That is when we need the help the most,” Reynolds said. “Hard-shells sell themselves. I can sell every hard-shell in the state of Maine in a few minutes. We don’t have a demand problem. We have a value problem. That graph makes it pretty clear.”
The session was run by the group’s marketing consulting firm, Weber Shandwick of Boston. It plans to transform the brainstorming into a marketing strategy to bring back to the collaborative board for a vote in December.
A lobster crawls into a lobster trap on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean off Biddeford in September. (Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty file photo)