At its April 7 meeting, the Zone D Lobster Council briefly visited an issue that has been a major discussion topic throughout the industry in recent months.

“Less than 20 percent of our product is sold live,” said lobsterman Gerry Cushman of Port Clyde. “The consumer’s not educated about the processed product.”

Cushman said a large part of the next statewide Lobster Advisory Council meeting will be devoted to a discussion of marketing strategies and options for certifying the fishery as sustainable. The council will also look at ways to develop a funding mechanism to support those efforts. The date for that meeting has not been set.

Marketing focus wavers between live and processed product

Out of more than two dozen seminars at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport at the beginning of March, four were devoted to marketing, and two focused on finding ways to increase profits in the lobster fishery.

In an energetic presentation, former executive director of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America John Sauvé of Swardlick Marketing Group compared the issues facing lobstermen today with those confronted by blueberry growers in Maine and Atlantic Canada in 1981.

An aspect of Swardlick’s approach that may present a major challenge to Maine lobstermen is its focus on blueberries as a commodity. Much of the growth in sales for the fruit has been in the wholesale market, where blueberries are purchased to become part of other products, such as juice, cereals, muffin mixes and yogurt.

“We’re in the ingredient business,” Sauve said. He said 95 percent of the wild blueberries grown in Maine and Eastern Canada end up in someone else’s product.

“A brand is a commodity with a personality,” Sauve said.

Until March 11, when the Maine Legislature passed L.D. 1593, lobsters landed in the state could only be sold whole, as picked meat, or as whole tails. On July 1, Maine will be able to host its own processing plants, feeding a growing international demand for claws and knuckles, as well as split tails and other parts to be used for food preparation.

According to the summary on the Legislature’s Web site, L.D. 1593 “implements some of the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on the Economic Sustainability of Maine’s Lobster Industry. It changes existing laws governing the handling of lobster parts and tails in order to improve the markets for the lobster industry. It eliminates the lobster tail permit and fee and creates a new lobster processor license to allow for increased market flexibility through the rule-making process.”

Sauve said the changes would make it easier to sell lobster meat from Maine to customers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Emily Lane of Portland Shellfish said the Alaskan salmon industry improved sales by taking the opposite approach. Lane said Alaskans spent $160 million in a marketing effort to change from a commodity driven to a consumer driven market.

Lane said the United States imports more seafood than it does beer, wine or coffee, and seafood is the most misunderstood food sector and lacks transparency.

Whether to focus on selling a live product, a commodity or a concept was a large part of the discussion at the 2010 Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen’s Town Meeting in Portland March 26 and 27. Many of those present said that lobster’s most marketable attribute is the perception that it makes a meal into an event, while others said a connection to the fishermen themselves is part of what the end users pay for.

“Price is a powerful weapon, but when it’s the only weapon in the toolbox the market is going to take us to pieces,” Michael Gardner said. Gardner is president of Gardner Pinfold Consulting Economists in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was at the meeting to talk about market trends.

He said the market for live lobsters has declined to less than half of total sales, while there has been increased interest in frozen tails, claws, knuckles and other parts. Eighty percent of the lobsters exported from Canada are coming to the United States, he said. Some of that product originated in Maine ports before being shipped to Canada for processing.

“If you didn’t have a processed product, your prices would really be in the toilet,” Gardner said. “They’re low enough now.” He said prices in Maine last fall were at the lowest level in 15 years.

Environmental and health concerns may fuel industry growth

“Globally, there’s been an increase in labeling and certification programs,” Lane of Portland Shellfish said at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. She said consumers are looking for proof of a reduced impact on the environment and increased benefits to human health.

“How the product is managed and fished is becoming increasingly important to consumers,” Lane said.

Saying that timing is always important, Sauve pointed out that the advertising campaign for the Wild Blueberry Association of North America was developed as scientists were recognizing the health benefits of blueberries, and marketing plans focused on those benefits yielded great results. He said the current emphasis on sustainable harvest practices could help lobstermen sell their product.

Beginning at the first of the year, the European Union has required catch certification from the National Marine Fisheries Service for seafood imports from the United States, Lane said. But U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that help farmers meet the increasing demand for such labels do not extend to seafood, and fish are not included in USDA marketing standards.

Lane said industry efforts should be focused on promoting awareness of the sustainability and benefits of seafood in general, and the specific attributes of what she and others call “the Maine brand.” She said fishermen should work cooperatively to develop ways to add value to their product and create sustainability standards for their fisheries.

Hannaford Supermarkets Director of Corporate Responsibility George Parmenter oversees environmental standards for 1,600 supermarkets on the Eastern seaboard.

“The issues are real,” Parmenter said at the Fishermen’s Forum. He said 83 percent of the 6.8 billion human beings on the planet live on one-tenth of the resources.

“If they achieved our standard of living, we’d need four earths to satisfy the demand,” Parmenter said.

At the same time, he said, studies show that those in the developed world are expecting the companies they work for and do business with to be more responsible in their relationships with the natural environment.

Parmenter said about half of Hannaford’s customers purchase seafood at least once a month, and there has been a groundswell of interest in sustainability, with several major chains making a commitment to purchasing from certified producers and harvesters.

“But close to half of the people don’t know what that means,” Parmenter said.

In 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable developments as those that “meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

On April 8, Hannaford Director of Corporate Communications Michael Norton said current management of the lobster resource meets the company’s policy. That policy is posted on the Web at hannaford.com and states: “All seafood harvested in the Gulf of Maine region shall be verified by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.”

“Hannaford Supermarkets will require full traceability to the point of landing or farm pond of all seafood sold fresh, frozen or in value-added products,” the policy states. “Hannaford Supermarkets shall have immediate access to information on where the product was harvested. For those vendors unable to meet the traceability requirement, specific action plans must be presented to Hannaford Supermarkets detailing how they will meet the requirement by March 2011.”

“The core of it is that we want to make sure that when we’re sourcing products there’s a science-based management plan in place,” Norton said.

At the Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen’s Town Meeting, harvesters, dealers and retailers heard from Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Outreach Manager Jay Lugar. The council has developed standards for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability.

The Marine Stewardship Council is a resource for independent third-party certifiers who work with the entire chain of custody from harvester to retailer to ensure that end customers know where and how seafood is harvested and handled. The council provides a label that fishermen and handlers can use to identify their product as sustainable. The only payment the council receives is for the use of that label, Lugar said.

Lugar said the three principles that guide the council’s program are the health of the target stock, the fishery’s effect on the ecosystem in terms of bycatch and other impacts, and the effectiveness of the fishery’s management system.

“We’re developing the Gulf of Maine standard brand,” said Kate Burns of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Burns said the goal is not to replace the Marine Stewardship Council, but to have responsible practices and full traceability in place within two years.

Lobster processor Jeff Holden of Portland Shellfish said fishermen in certified fisheries might not make more per pound, but a labeling program would expand the market.

At the April 7 Zone D meeting, Cushman said Canadian lobstermen are already tracking the chain of custody for their product and moving ahead with efforts to certify their lobsters as sustainable. “We need to do that as well,” he said.

“The world wants to see that,” said Ryan Post of Rockland and Metinic Island. “If we can’t prove it, they’ll move on.”

Jen Levin, Sustainable Seafood Program manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said at the Fishermen’s Forum that 70 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is eaten in restaurants and the majority of retailers are willing to invest more money in, and expect a higher return from, selling products that are recognized as sustainable.

“Seafood is so healthy, and we’re not communicating that,” Levin said. She said seafood’s carbon footprint is one-tenth that of beef, one-fourth that of pork and half that of chicken.

She said processing facilities are vital to improving Maine’s ability to market its fish and shellfish.

“There are people willing to buy a whole fish,” Levin said, “but there are fewer who are willing to do it more than once.”

Mistrust between lobstermen, dealers, delays marketing plan

“Fishermen don’t understand where the lobsters go and why prices are so high in restaurants,” Gardner of Gardner Pinfold Consulting Economists said. He said lobstermen need to learn more about the costs of processing and transporting lobster as well as the costs involved in operating the restaurants where much of the product reaches customers.

Sauve said blueberry growers and processors each pay three-fourths of a cent on every pound of blueberries to be used by the Wild Blueberry Commission to promote the product. In Canada, that money is paid through the federal government, while in Maine the funds are paid directly to the commission.

He said a yearly harvest of around 9 million pounds has yielded a fund that is worth about $2.5 million. About $1 million of that is spent in the United States, he said.

Many lobstermen at the Canadian/U.S. meeting expressed a concern that the practice of basing menu prices on the daily fluctuations in boat prices discourages restaurant patrons from ordering lobster.

Downeast Lobstermen’s Association Secretary and Treasurer Mike Dassatt suggested working through the associations to develop a set boat price at the start of a season that would be used to inform pricing throughout the supply chain and to consider marketing costs when setting that price.

Lobster Zone B Council Chairman Jon Carter of Hulls Cove said something needs to be done to build more trust and transparency between lobstermen and dealers.

“The critical thing this industry needs to do is promote the North American lobster,” said lobster dealer Dana Rice of Birch Harbor. “We don’t put our money where our mouth is.” He urged harvesters to find a way to raise funds for the effort.

Rice said April 8 that he’s comfortable with sharing the cost of marketing and promotion, as long as there’s strong support from the harvesters.

“First you’ve got to get the concept sold to the lobstermen,” he said. Rice said mistrust between fishermen and buyers makes it difficult to gain consensus, but a show of support from harvesters for the goal of creating a marketing plan is the first step.

The discussion about sharing the cost of marketing will come after that, Rice said.

Andre Martin, co-chairman of Canada’s Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said it was hard to move forward when harvesters, dealers and retailers all appear to be sitting at different tables.

Outreach worker could help engage fishermen

This coming summer, the Department of Marine Resources intends to hire an outreach worker to meet with lobstermen throughout the state. In the fall, the department plans to submit a bill to the Legislature to create a mechanism for raising funds for marketing Maine lobster.

“We want to promote marketing to the best of our ability without adding the fee to the tags on the lobstermen’s license,” said the department’s Resource Coordinator Sarah Cotnoir after the April 7 Zone D meeting. “A lot of the expenses trickle down to the fishermen paying for everything that is thrown at them.”

Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron said April 8 that there is a need for someone to reach out to those who will be affected by a new marketing approach.

“The industry can be very disjointed,” McCarron said. “You can’t reach people who don’t want to be reached, but you can’t hold a meeting in Augusta and expect people to travel 400 miles.” She said hiring a dedicated outreach worker implies that the person will go into local communities and be available to lobstermen.

“It’s not about having a meeting in Portland, Rockland and Ellsworth and saying you’re done,” McCarron said.

“Our lobster is already sustainable and has a good name for itself,” Cotnoir said. She said she believes the Marine Stewardship Council is very political. “We believe that we should have traceability on our product for our protection as well as the consumer,” she said. “The Maine Promotion Council already has a logo that was established about three years ago.”

“I don’t want to work crisis management,” said lobsterman Steve Train of Long Island. Train said that at about $350,000 a year, Maine’s current level of spending on marketing lobsters is insufficient. He said he supports proposals to dedicate 5 cents a pound from all lobsters sold in the state to the effort to increase markets for the product. Such a plan would generate an estimated $3.5 million, he said.

“Take it [from] anywhere you want,” Train said. “Everything comes out of the cod end. We know that.”

Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, said lobstermen who want to promote a more developed Maine marketing program need to make their wishes apparent to the Legislature.

“It would need broad-based support,” he said.

Lobster Advisory Council member Cushman said small meetings in fishing communities would have better attendance than larger gatherings. As an example, he said a meeting in Tenants Harbor might bring lobstermen from the seven nearby docks who might not travel to Rockland at the end of a long day.

“There’s going to be a bill from DMR,” Cushman said. “If they want input, they’d better show up.”

“In down markets, you fish harder,” Sauve said at the Fishermen’s Forum. “You need to market harder. It’s not about over-supply. It’s about under-demand.”

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.