Swan’s Island Co-op here to stay

First published in the MLA newsletter, July, 2010.

“I always tell the bankers, we were here before the rest of them and we’ll be here long after they’re gone,” said Kenny Lemoine Jr., president of the Swan’s Island Fishermen’s Co-op. Lemoine speaks with some pride of the co-operative, founded by his father and 22

Photo by Kathy Clark.

other island lobstermen in 1972. Still going strong 38 years later, the co-op has become a local community center, according to Lemoine.

Prior to 1972, Morris Sprague owned and ran the wharf as a lobster-buying station. Apparently Sprague thought highly of the fishermen who used his wharf. As he grew older and his daughter, a school teacher on the mainland, showed no interest in taking over his business, he decided to turn the property over to his lobstermen. “Morris financed it for them [the fledgling co-op] until it was paid for,” Lemoine said. “He felt that his fishermen were devoted to him and he wanted them to have it.”

Swan’s Island also holds the title of the first Maine island to be granted a conservation zone by the Maine legislature. The conservation zone, approved in 1984, at first set a limit of 350 traps for all lobstermen, islanders or mainland-based, fishing around the island. That number was later increased to 475. According to Jim Acheson, a anthropologist at the University of Maine in Orono and author of Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster, the zone has lessened gear tangles, reduced bait and fuel expenses and given legal definition to the traditional territory of the island, reducing conflicts among the lobstermen in general. In 2000, Swan’s Island lobstermen voted against increasing the trap limit to 600.

The co-op membership hasn’t grown much since 1972, from 23 to 30 members, perhaps not surprising on an island with just 300 residents. But it has become a focal point in the community. “We have both diesel and gas,” Lemoine explained. “We’re have gas [for vehicles] all the time.” The co-op employs two people full-time year-round and three or more on a part-time basis during the fishing season.

Generations of lobstermen from the same families have joined the co-op since its founding. “Lots of youngsters have come up through the co-op,” Lemoine says. “I’ve got my nine-year-old grandson setting out ten traps this year.”

Kathy Clark is the co-op’s general manager. She credits the success of the co-op to the quality of product harvested. “We have excellent lobster on this part of the coast,” she says simply. That quality product – approximately 980,000 pounds of which was landed by the co-op in 2009 — is purchased by Inland Lobster of Milbridge. The company in turn sells the co-op bait.

“Last year was our biggest year [in terms of landings],” Clarks says, in part because the co-op purchased a new buying station located in Brooklin on the mainland. Still, the bulk of the co-op’s lobsters are landed on the island and must be shipped off via ferry. That adds to the overall cost of the product, says Clark. “The dealer will send a thirty-foot truck every day and that’s $127 round-trip,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a larger truck or they come twice a day. It’s hard getting the trucks on and off the ferry.”

Lemoine thinks that co-ops in general make a lot of sense for small, isolated places such as islands. “There’s a lot of competition out there. It’s really a positive thing to be in the co-op,” he says.