Stonington lobster fisherman John Williams usually hauls his boat out in February for annual maintenance and paint in preparation for the start of the spring fishing season. “Then COVID started,” he says.
The health emergency was worsening and the economy shutting down. That included one of the lobster industry’s biggest markets — restaurants. The large cruise ship and casino markets also slammed shut. International freight and shipping to China, emerging as a large consumer of lobster, had nearly stopped. “I got thinking about it and said, ‘This doesn’t look very good. We won’t have any market,’” Williams says.
Dealers were saying they couldn’t move product. Williams almost removed his traps from the water. Then one dealer — a family member — said he could use a few lobsters. So Williams called his regular dealer. “I said, ‘What’ going on?’” he remembers. “He said, ‘I’ll take them.’ In two weeks, things changed.”
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative and individual dealers scrambled to find new retail markets — catering to home chefs, advertising on consumer media outlets such as Real Simple and Thrillist, and building on existing relationships with grocers. The collaborative developed media content on how to cook lobster, how to shuck lobster — all the things that might be handled at a restaurant.
Since summer’s start, there’s been a flurry of lobster consumption through direct-to-consumer sales online and in grocery stores, says Hugh Reynolds, owner of Greenhead Lobster, a Stonington lobster dealership. Reynolds leveraged relationships with retailers that wanted to promote more lobster, including value-added products he was developing at a Bucksport processing plant he opened last year. The consumers were home cooks and folks craving a night out when restaurants started outdoor seating.
“People had not had a night out in months and lobster seemed to be the ‘home treat’ of choice,” Reynolds writes on his blog. “And when people did start to go out, New England-style lobster shacks across the country were the ideal setting for an outdoor meal. Lobster rolls are a good ‘take-out’ option and a classic summer meal, and the demand has been there despite the challenges.”
“The big pivot seems to have been into retail and into direct-to-consumer sales. It was difficult to comprehend how lobster would go into retail in a meaningful enough way to make up for the lack of restaurants and food service. But it appears that sector has grown significantly and has accounted for a bigger market share than it has traditionally been, and it seems to be a fairly stable segment.”Says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
“I give credit to the dealers,” says Stonington fisherman Frank Gotwals. “They really made an effort to move toward home sales and supermarkets.”
For Stonington, the shift is meaningful. With a population just over 1,000, according to the 2010 census, its harbor is home to between 300 and 400 fishing vessels, each run as an independent business by its captain and employing one or two stern men. The small Hancock County village, on the south end of Deer Isle, is Maine’s biggest lobster fishing port.
Along its winding main road are traditional seafood dealer wharfs, views of the sea and islands, and a tiny downtown featuring bed-and-breakfasts, the early-20th-century Stonington Opera House and a granite museum displaying artifacts of the quarries once a big driver of the local economy.
Today, the lobster fishery is Stonington’s economic engine. “Stonington is kind of unique,” says town manager Kathleen Billings. “We’re closest to the fishing grounds.” In addition to direct jobs, lobstering is twined into the community’s larger economy. “We have the marine hardware stores, the people who do the trucking, the bait businesses. There are the garages that fix the trucks,” says Billings.
There’s the downtown grocery. “He opens at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and there’s a line out the door, with the guys going in to get food before they head out on their boats,” she says. The activity also attracts visitors. “Tourists go to Bar Harbor to see the park, they go north to see the moose and they come here to see the lobstermen,” she continues.
Although the value of Stonington’s lobster landings declined from $68 million in 2016 to $51 million in 2019, the town has outranked other ports for at least the past five years. “It’s a stunning value, when you think of putting that much money into the economy of an island,” says Robin Alden, a co-founder of Stonington’s Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries.
Statewide this summer, says McCarron, “There was a ton of anxiety going into the season when the pandemic hit, because restaurants and food service shut down and over three-quarters of seafood is consumed in restaurants. We were wondering, No. 1, if fishermen fished, would there be a market for their product?”
Fishermen were also concerned the per-pound price paid to them would not be high enough to cover their costs. Some fishermen shifted operations going into the season in order to avoid overburdening the supply chain. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard of older people not setting gear,” McCarron says. “People were being careful about the number of traps they set.” But the timing of the pandemic’s start is considered something of a silver lining. Early spring is always slow for the fishery.
“By and large, the lobster fishery lucked out,” says Carla Guenther, chief scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. “People were able to shift to direct marketing, because we didn’t have the high volume coming in.” As of mid-September, lobsters also hadn’t been as plentiful as they usually are at that time of year. So the market, as it geared up, has been able to absorb available product. “I think the lobster haven’t struck yet in their full bloom,” says Reynolds. “But we’re still anticipating a good fall like we had last year.”
Scarcity helped boost payments to fishermen, who are seeing per-pound prices of $4.50 or more — close to what they saw at this time a year ago. Combined with “surprisingly healthy retail demand, prices have been a lot stronger than what we anticipated in the midst of COVID in March and April,” says Reynolds.
“It’s like the stars have been in alignment to allow us to limp along as opposed to crash,” says Guenther. “It’s a season of just-enough.”
“We’re taking it a day at a time,” says McCarron. “We’ve been really pleased that the dealers and processers have been so effective in building new markets. We hope those continue. But I wouldn’t want to guess what next week or next month brings in this pandemic economy. I think everyone will continue to be cautious.”