First published in Landings, February, 2015.
In this new series we will profile some of the young men and women who took part in the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance’s inaugural Leadership Institute in May, 2014 to see what they are doing one year later.
On a cold and bright day in mid-January Cyrus Sleeper, 26, is working on his new lobster boat at the Clark Island Boat Yard in St. George. The boat, a 42-foot Mussel Ridge composite vessel designed by Albert Hutchinson, looms above a visitor to the bay in which Sleeper and the finish crew are operating. “This is my fifth boat,” says Sleeper, a lean young man with a quiet smile. “I’m going to name her Centerfold.”
Sleeper was one of a dozen young lobstermen who participated in the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance inaugural Leadership Institute last spring. The men and women spent two days studying all aspects of Maine’s lobster industry – from state and federal management practices to supply chain economics and marketing – before traveling to Prince Edward Island to meet with their Canadian counterparts there. In the long run, the goal of the Institute is to inspire the younger generation of lobstermen to take leadership roles in the industry. “As the Maine lobster industry copes with a rapidly changing fishery, keeping the industry relevant and profitable for the next generation is essential,” explained Patrice McCarron, president of the MLCA. “New leaders must step up in order to preserve hard-won measures that are fundamental to the lobster fishery’s abundance and ensure future prosperity.”
Sleeper has done just that. In October he was appointed by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Pat Keliher to serve on the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC). The Collaborative was created by the state Legislature in 2014 to develop markets for Maine lobster; it is funded by a fee levied on lobstermen and seafood processor licenses.
“To be honest, I thought the Institute would be a good opportunity to get out of town and learn new things,” Sleeper explained. “I sure did!” The trip to Prince Edward Island was a particular eye-opener. “It was like going back in time here in Maine because they use wooden traps there and have other traditions,” Sleeper said. He and the other participants fished with the island lobstermen, ate with them and stayed overnight in their homes. Sleeper kept his eyes open. “I saw some things that I’ve kept in the back of my mind that I’d like to try, like how they tie the trap to the line at the bridle,” he said.
The Institute experience also gave Sleeper a desire to get further involved in aspects of lobstering other than hauling traps. “John Sauve [who drafted a marketing plan for the state Lobster Advisory Council] talked to us during the Institute about marketing. I thought that was pretty interesting,” Sleeper said. When Peter Miller, a St. George lobsterman who sat on the MLMC, announced that he was planning to step down, McCarron suggested to Sleeper that he might take Miller’s seat. “I went to a few [MLMC] meetings and met with the Commissioner and ended up sliding in there,” Sleeper explained. “I don’t mind going to meetings.”
Being on the MLMC has given Sleeper as much food for thought as visiting Prince Edward Island did. “Marketing is a simple idea but there are many different techniques you can use to reach people,” he said. “It’s not as simple as putting an ad in the paper.” The MLMC recently hired the international public relations firm Weber Shandwick to build up demand for Maine lobster at the national and international levels.
The notion of marketing Maine lobster is foreign to many lobstermen, and Sleeper understands their confusion. After all, a lobsterman is concerned more with the price of fuel and bait, the state of his or her boat, and the price paid at the wharf than whether a grocery shopper in South Korea can purchase his lobster easily. “Selling lobster is not really talked about on the docks,” Sleeper said. “But there are always people interested in knowing what we are doing. I could have a full-time job just myth-busting about marketing lobster.”
Sleeper spoke about the recent Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability certification of Prince Edward Island lobster (which Maine lobster received in 2013) and the island’s development of a specific brand identity for its lobster. High value is placed on MSC certification by European seafood buyers and increasingly Asian buyers as well. “People have the idea that the Canadians are the enemies but that’s not so,” Sleeper explained. “They are necessary to us here in Maine. We need them and they need us.”
Around the end of March Sleeper hopes to have Centerfold in the water. He fishes offshore during the fall months and is looking forward to the step up in size from his current 36-foot boat. And he’s looking forward to becoming even more involved in making Maine lobster an internationally recognized brand. “Before I took part in the Institute, I sort of thought that getting into these sorts of position [on the MLMC] was unobtainable. Now it really seems like people like me, the young guys, are wanted. They want to know what we think.”