Learning by doing at East Coast Seafood’s Lobster Academy

First published in the MLA Newsletter, July, 2012.

Deer Island, New Brunswick is a seven mile unbridged island with a year-round population of 600 people. At the head of Passamaquaddy Bay, the island is surrounded by herring weirs and salmon pens – infrastructure that speaks to both the tradition and the future of the local marine economy in the region. After a six hour drive from Portland, a short boat ride from St. Andrews, and a two-mile drive down a bumpy island road, it dawns on me – it was a long journey to get to my destination. There at the end of the road sit two large industrial buildings which constitute East Coast Seafood’s Paturel plant. Situated on a 350-acre property, the Paturel plant processes an average of 17 million pounds of raw product annually and is home to the largest lobster pound in the world. At full capacity the pound can hold a staggering two million pounds of lobster!

Working the line at East Coast Seafood's Paturel plant on Deer Isle, New Brunswick. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

I visited Paturel as part of a tour organized at the Lobster Academy, a program offered by East Coast Seafood to increase “the value of Homarus americanus worldwide through quality education”. The ‘students’ in this unusual academy consist of representatives from customers, lobster buyers, shippers and packaging industry representatives. My group included buyers for Sobey’s, one of only two national Canadian grocery chains, the lobster buyer for Slade Gorton, East Coast sales representatives from the southeast United States and Spain, product development specialists, a buyer and a chef from a small cruise ship company in the Pacific northwest, and a writer from the only fish business magazine in Germany.

I found one of the most striking aspects of the Lobster Academy to be that the people in attendance weren’t solely East Coast’s customers. The goal of the Lobster Academy is simply to increase the knowledge base about lobsters and the processing system. So, customer or not, this program provides the people who purchase lobster with an increased understanding of the industry and the product they handle.

Before the tour of the plant, East Coast president Michael Tourkistas explained that the plant, while seemingly far away from major transportation hubs like Boston or Halifax, is strategically located on Deer Island. “We are located in the hub lobster landings. We can get the best lobster in the world from the dock to our plant within 2.5 hours.” Tourkistas spoke about East Coast’s commitment to the sustainability of lobster populations, the Deer Island community, and the environment. He emphasized the company’s commitment to raising the industry standard for environmental responsibility, citing the company’s use of biodiesel for trucking lobsters and the move to 50% solar energy at their Chelsea, Massachusetts freight forwarding facility. In addition, all shell waste from processing is composted or recycled.

The company’s most recent environmental improvement has been in the area of packaging. The seafood industry has traditionally used a wax-coated cardboard box for shipping, but the waxy finish prevents the cardboard from being recycled. East Coast has begun using a new box designed by Norampac, a Canadian company that produces a recyclable water-repellant box for perishable refrigerated products.

Many hands at work picking lobster. Annie Tselikis photo.

I witnessed first-hand how seriously Paturel views product quality. Quality control at the plant starts immediately when the lobsters are offloaded from trucks. A protein test, which examines the blood sugar level of the lobster, is administered as well as a shell test. On a scale of 1 to 30, any lobster with a blood sugar level above 10 rates as a shippable lobster. Lobsters are then packed for shipment to Europe, the United States or Canada. After being graded and boxed, the lobsters are trucked to East Coast’s freight forwarding facility in Chelsea, Massachusetts and shipped from Logan Airport in Boston around the world. Lobsters can reach Europe within three days.

Lobsters slated for processing move from the live building to the processing building where they undergo another series of quality checks before being sized and graded for quality. The higher quality product is cooked whole and frozen. The steamer is a behemoth computer operated machine that sits in a room the size of a tennis court. Lesser quality product is butchered and the tails, claws and knuckles make their way down the line. Tails are fresh frozen, while claws and knuckles are cooked and separated to be processed for claw and knuckle meat or into individually quick frozen (IQF) claw and arm “crack and eat” products.

Clad in hair nets, booties, white coats and gloves, our tour moved onto the processing floor and I was surprised by both the similarities and differences from plants I have toured in Maine. The Maine processors are located close to Portland where they have good workforce access. The floors of the Maine plants are multicultural melting pots where hand washing station signs appear in both English and Spanish, speaking to the high level of Latino workers. I was expecting it to be different in Canada, especially on such a tiny island. Instead, I found groups of Filipino men managing claws coming out of the cooker and cracking the shells in preparation for picking. Trays of cracked claws are stacked and then move over to the picking line and transit a conveyor belt surrounded by a mix of Deer Island residents and Filipino women. On the day that we were there, their fast hands worked to separate claw and knuckle meat that is then bagged, vacuum packed and frozen.

I ask the head of quality control, Jamie Olsen, what it’s like shifting to Maine Lobster in the spring. “It’s a nightmare for the Maine season”, Olsen said. His explanation shocked me. I suspected that processing soft shells was different than for hard shells, but it was eye opening to hear him refer to it as a “nightmare”. He continued, “We have to be really careful with the shells and increase our quality control steps in processing.” Olsen told me that because the meat yield is lower in soft shell lobsters, extra workers are added on the line because more lobsters must be picked to reach one pound of meat. And shedder lobster shells shatter more than hard shell lobsters, so they place six more people onto the inspection line. I knew that much of Maine’s cull and soft shedder product went to Canada for processing, but I had no idea of the extra costs associated with processing Maine’s product.

“And when we shift from hard shell product to processing soft shell product, sometimes we get complaints from our customers. The soft shell lobsters have a different presentation [in food service and restaurant sectors], and we have to explain to them that the quality changes throughout the year,” Olsen explained. “But it tastes sweeter.”

One of the things that I love about my job with the MLA is the opportunity to learn about different sectors of the lobster industry. Since I am most familiar with the harvesting side of the industry, discovering the different components of the supply chain is truly eye-opening. Seeing such a large-scale lobster processing facility first hand and how the infrastructure actually works to move lobsters into the marketplace provides insight on both the successes and the limitations of the product from Maine. My take away is that we really need to know our product and understand the marketplace. This will help us to make informed decisions on how to build demand for a variety of quality Maine Lobster products.

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