A few months after buying a lobster pound and processing plant, Maine’s lobstering union is now tapping its connection to unions across the country to rack up online retail sales and reap greater financial returns for its members.

The union is now shipping live Maine lobster caught by its 400 members anywhere in the country. The path these lobsters will take on their way from the ocean floor to your door is completely unionized, from the Vinalhaven lobsterman who traps it to the Rockland truck driver who picks it up from a transfer boat to the Lamoine plant worker who packs it to the UPS teamster who delivers it.

Anyone can buy them, of course, but the Maine Lobstering Union is definitely looking to make the most of a nationwide union network.

“We have been fighting years for a sustainable fishery here in Maine and now we are fighting for sustainable fishermen for future generations to come,” said David Sullivan, manager of the union’s new mail-order business. “That means diversifying our business operations, owning as much of the supply chain as possible, and taking advantage of our strengths, working with our union brothers and sisters.”

This month, the union launched a direct-order website, lobster207.com, where customers can buy lobster and watch videos of the union fishermen hauling traps in roiling seas and talking about why they fish, accompanied by bluesy guitar riffs. The videos also tell the story of the union, which formed in 2013 in the wake of a severe lobster price drop.

By cutting out the middlemen – the lobster dealers and distributors – and negotiating discounted shipping rates from UPS, the lobstering union believes it can capture a bigger share of the profits from retail sales and save consumers money at the same time, Sullivan said. It is charging $9 a pound for its lobsters, and shipping them in boxes that range from 5 to 50 pounds.

A customer in Phoenix, Arizona, which is about as far away from Maine as you can get in the continental U.S., would pay $81 for the 5-pound box of Lobster207 lobsters, which includes shipping. That same customer could pay from $89 to $184 to buy the same amount of live lobster from other retailers listed in the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative’s directory of online Maine lobster retailers.

“As a union operation, we really worked hard to get shipping rates that help us make lobster affordable for the everyday person,” Sullivan said. “Out in Kansas City, the only place you’re going to find lobster is at a fancy restaurant. Most grocery stores don’t even sell it there. It’s a luxury item. But we are making it affordable for everybody.”

MARKETING THROUGH MEMBERS

The union opened its online doors in July through a mass email sent out to union members across the country, Sullivan said. In its first month, Lobster207 has shipped to as far away as Florida and California, with a lot of orders coming from the Midwest, where most grocers do not sell live lobster. It is also selling to a lot of former Mainers who now live out of reach of the New England specialty.

About 80 percent of orders placed in the first month have come from union members, Sullivan said.

Lobster207 makes it easy, and more politically correct, for a local to feature lobster on an event menu, including retirement or holiday parties, conventions or charity fundraisers, Sullivan said. For example, union lobster will be on the menu for an upcoming Guide Dogs of America golf tournament, a favorite charity of the International Association of Machinists, which is the lobstering union’s parent organization.

For the union lobstermen, the website is the tool they’ve been waiting for to sell their own lobsters to the world, Sullivan said.

One of its members, Aaron Smith of Jonesport, was recently eating dinner at 44 Degrees North in Milbridge. When tourists at the pub learned that he was “a real live lobsterman,” they asked him if they could buy lobsters directly from him, and perhaps have them sent to their home to enjoy once vacation was over. In the past, he would have had to tell them that’s not how it works in Maine.

“Now that we’ve got the online operation up, they said yes, go to our website, and they pulled out their phone right there in the restaurant and showed them how to find their business, buy their lobster, watch their stories,” Sullivan said. “The guys, they’re so proud of that. The dividend from the online business will be nice, but they really love the fact that they’re selling their own lobster now.”

The Maine Lobstering Union formed in 2013 in the wake of an infamous 2012 spring glut that drove boat prices to a season average of $2.69 per pound, down from about $4 per pound during recent years and the lowest yearly average in 20 years. The union has at times had up to a 500-person membership, but not all pay their $62.70-a-month union dues on time.

In February, the union voted to buy the wholesale side of the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound in Lamoine, which has a tank that can hold up to 180,000 pounds of lobster, for $4 million. Members from Jonesport, Mount Desert Island and Vinalhaven now sell their lobsters directly to the union cooperative for storage at the Lamoine facility and eventual sale.

Union fishermen who sell to the co-op will get market price for their lobster, but they will also get a share of cooperative profits, or a dividend, at the end of the year once operational costs, like trucking and employees, are covered. In time, the union hopes to expand its buying territory to the whole Maine coast.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH