Coastal Outlook: February 2013

First published in Landings, February, 2013.

The cold days of winter tend to make us focus on all of the doom and gloom in the world. The sun is low, the days are short and there are few opportunities to make money. Yet, there is plenty of reason for optimism.

This feature is called Coastal Outlook for a reason: it gives me the opportunity to bring your attention to what’s happening on the coast of Maine in communities large and small. And much of what’s happening is pretty inspiring.

In Eastport, David Pottle’s enormous indoor lobster pound is in full swing. The 6,000-square-foot Lighthouse Lobster and Bait facility, which opened in December, stores hard shell lobsters in individual “condos” in two huge tanks of very cold, filtered seawater. The lobsters basically hibernate in the cold water until shipped to Inland Seafood, Pottle’s sole buyer. And Lighthouse Lobster is not unique in its approach. Many of Maine’s lobster dealers have been making investments in their lobster holding infrastructure in order to keep pace with lobster landings, and many have added cooking rooms as a way to reduce shrinkage from weak lobsters during times of peak landings.

Maine’s lobster processing sector is on the rise as well, showing tremendous growth during the last few years. In September, Garbo Lobster and East Coast Seafood combined forces to purchase the former Stinson sardine cannery for $900,000 during a foreclosure auction. These two well-established businesses bring a wealth of experience in live trade, processing and global distribution of lobster. The owners are making investments to upgrade the plant, and are seeking additional support through state and federal grants. The plant is expected to be operational for the 2013 lobster season.

Also last fall, a Rockland lobster dealer joined forces with a New Brunswick-based processor to purchase and convert a former printing plant into a lobster processing facility. The plant expects to employ 40 people and will sell fresh, cooked and frozen lobster products. Maine Seacoast Ventures and Holden Seafood will bring new processing online this year in southern Maine.

These additions to Maine’s lobster processing sector bring the number of Maine lobster processors to at least nine. Earlier in 2012, Sea Hag Seafood completed its conversion of the former Great Eastern Mussel Farm in Tenants Harbor and began processing lobster; Maine Coast Shellfish in York came online in 2011. Prior to that Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine purchased the former Oak Island processing plant in Rockland in 2009 and converted it to lobster processing. Shucks Maine Lobster installed Maine’s first high water pressure process to their Richmond facility in 2006. This innovative process, which they refer to as the “Big Mother Shucker,” loosens the meat from the shells and cold-pasteurizes the product, producing a fresh, raw lobster meat for sale. Cozy Harbor Seafood has been processing high quality lobster products from their state of the art Portland facility since 1980.

And Maine is also growing its value added sector. Calendar Islands Maine Lobster and Linda Bean have recently joined the ranks of well-known companies such as Hancock Gourmet and Looks Gourmet to offer consumers ready to cook, gourmet lobster meals such as stews, pizzas and pastas.

Through entrepreneurship, innovation and careful investment, these businesses are growing Maine’s processing sector and bring quality Maine lobster products to customers in the U.S. and around the world.

Progress and innovation in the Maine lobster industry is happening in other avenues of the lobster industry. In Harpswell, Jim Merryman recently installed 44 photovoltaic solar panels at the Reversing Falls Lobster Wharf in Harpswell to decrease the cost of electricity. Merryman, who owns the Potts Harbor Lobster Company, decided that reducing his electricity bills and doing something positive about atmospheric pollution just made good sense. The Reversing Falls wharf is the first solar-powered lobster wharf in the country.

In Landings this month you will read about an new U.S.D.A. grant awarded to Monhegan Island’s power district to make investments in solar and other technologies in order to lower energy costs for islanders. Vinalhaven has taken the lead in renewable energy investment among Maine’s islands. The island installed three wind turbines in 2009, which produce enough power to meet the electricity needs of the residents of both Vinalhaven and North Haven. And more renewable projects are coming. The federal government awarded $4 million to the University of Maine and Stat Oil North Atlantic to support the development and installation of deepwater, offshore floating turbines… that’s serious money.

The upcoming legislative session will be marked by initiatives that continue investment in Maine’s coastal communities. The lobster industry has worked with the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to submit a bill to step up marketing of Maine lobster through a $3 million industry investment to brand and build demand for the product. And during an extremely difficult budget shortfall, the Governor has proposed a slight increase in funding for DMR in the next biennium in recognition of the critical role our fisheries play in sustaining Maine’s economy.

Sure, it’s easy to look at the array of issues facing coastal communities in Maine – high property taxes, low lobster prices, increasing limits on other fisheries – and think that everything is getting worse. Glass half empty? Or glass half full? Take your pick. There’s much going on in this state that is cause for celebration and certainly, for hope.

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