The Public Wants to Know the Story of Maine Lobster – Guest Column

When I was asked to write a short column for Landings about the global lobster market I thought, I have no idea about the global lobster market and I damn sure am no writer, but I can talk, so I figured why not? I’m a 40-year old third-generation lobster fisherman from Beals Island. I’m a proud member of the MLA and on the board of directors of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC). My father was president of the MLA from 1967 to 1974.  My two sons, age 9 and 11, are both members as well and proud owners of their first boat. I started fishing with my dad as soon as I was old enough to put on a pair of boots, so you could say lobstering is in my blood.

Sonny Beal and his two sons fish from Beals Island. S. Beal photo

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout the years it is that this is not a “go haul your traps and collect your check” fishery anymore. From the rules and regulations that have been forced on us to the rising cost of turning the key on the boat, this isn’t the same lobster industry our past generations built for us. That’s why when the opportunity came up to be on the board of the MLMC I jumped on it. I don’t know a thing about marketing lobster so I should be perfect.

   I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but I’ve got to tell you, I’m not anymore. The crew at the head of the MLMC combined with the marketing firm of Weber-Shandwick really have things dialed in. This day and age everything is social media-driven. It’s a cheap and easy way to get information out and for people to spread it around.

   I could sit here and bore you with numbers about the number of times Maine lobster turns up on menus and impressions and clicks and likes, but the bottom line is that most people don’t have a clue about Maine lobster. They think that lobster is lobster and most of it comes from Maine and that’s it.

Since joining the MLMC two years ago I’ve had several opportunities to attend events and talk to lots of different people. I even attended the “Maine After Midnight” event for chefs in Washington, D.C., and this really opened my eyes as to how bad it is.  Nobody had a clue about new-shell lobster. When we explained it, the people there couldn’t believe the difference. They all, and I mean all, loved it and loved it a lot more than old-shell. They were amazed at the difference in taste and amazed at how we catch it. They were really impressed by the measures we’ve taken to make our fishery sustainable.

   This just shows that we need to get the story out there and educate people about new-shell lobster because that’s what we mainly catch and now we’re catching so much more than in the past. So if we can get more new-shell lobsters featured in restaurants and on menus, the more demand we’ll have for our product.

   Getting lobster into more restaurants isn’t the only answer to increasing demand. More and more Maine lobsters are being shipped overseas. The only problem with this is that we all know that the new-shells don’t ship well. This is where lobstermen come into this big circle of lobster life. I’ve had the privilege of hearing the lobster veterinarian Jean Lavallée talk about the intricate workings of lobster anatomy and how best to handle them. There’s a nerve cord and a blood vessel running under a lobster’s tail and if either of those get poked by another lobster that lobster is pretty much a goner. Did you know that if you leave a bleeding lobster out of water for a few minutes it will clot faster? That goes against what my father told me. He always said to “put it in a bucket of water.” Jean is right, however, I’ve tested it.

   What I’m saying is we need to make a conscious effort to take good care of our lobsters. I know it’s hard to do sometimes. It’s a fast-paced job and if we handled them all like eggs we’d be hauling until midnight every day. I’ve found  myself being rough on them when it’s choppy or when the traps are “right to the doors” and we’re all fired up. But it’s one of those things that if we all do a little better then it will make a difference. The more lobsters that make it to market alive the better our product will be. A better product, in my opinion, will eventually help the price.  Here in Downeast Maine we don’t have any processing plants. Most of what we catch goes to Canada to be processed and then some of it is shipped back to the U.S. Knuckle and claw meat is going for around $35 per pound [in early November]. Tail meat is close to $30 per pound. Now I’m no math genius, but when a lobsterman gets paid, let’s say $3.50 per pound, and someone else sells it for $30 per pound, it’s clear that we’re losing money. If we had more processing plants we would have more jobs and I believe we would have a better price. Processed meat is vacuum-packed and frozen and then can be shipped anywhere.

   The lobster industry is growing, both on and off the water. The people at the MLMC have done a great job so far to promote lobster, but we can’t leave it all up to someone else. People will always want lobster and we need to make sure that it’s high-quality Maine lobster they’re getting. We need to see it on more menus and in more markets. So step up and do whatever you can to promote our lobsters. I talked about lobster on the plane to D.C. to different people who were fascinated by how we catch them and how they shed and grow and migrate.  It’s pretty easy to do and it’s up to us. As we say on the VHF, “Put it on to ‘em.”