March 10, 2010

Lobster business stays all in the family

— Q: What have you done for work in the past?

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Richard Merrill, his daughter Allison Romeo, and his father Leland Merril at Widgery Wharf, Portland, Tuesday, August 17, 2009. Allison sells lobsters fresh off her father's boat at The Lobsterman's Catch on the wharf, which her grandfather, Leland, owns (the wharf).

Jack Milton

A: I did PR for Dan Klores Communications in Manhattan. ... I worked at Pat's Pizza in Yarmouth, and at Polo in Freeport. And for my dad (Richard Merrill) in the summer. My first job was on the boat.

Q: What's the boat called?

A: The Anne Renee. My grandfather (Leland Merrill) bought that boat in 1977 and named it after his two daughters-in-law. My dad took it over, and still drives and uses it. So I have the store on the wharf; my father does the lobstering; and my grandfather owns the wharf. This fish-house had been empty for a few years.

Q: How long has your grandfather owned it?

A: I'm not sure. I believe since the 1950s.

Q: A wharf seems like a cool thing to own. How do you get one?

A: My grandfather is from a lobstering family on Cliff Island. They wanted a place to tie up in Portland. At the time there were six others involved, family and friends, and as they've died their shares have been bought out.

Q: Merrill, are you the same family as the (marine) terminal?

A: No. Or Merrill Seafood.

Q: How old are your dad and grandfather?

A: My dad is 54. My grandfather is 85. He finally stopped lobstering, which he'd been doing since he was a child, three years ago. My dad has owned his own traps since he was 13. His grandfather, Stanley Cushing, was a lobsterman as well, from Cliff Island.

Q: Do you go out on the boat?

A: I do. Typically on Monday if I'm not home with the kids; the store isn't open Monday because our lobsters are fresh-caught daily, and we don't fish Saturday or Sunday. And occasionally I go out on Fridays. ... My job description is, I bait the traps and stack them up. My dad has another sternman who helps him. On the days I go, we haul at least 300 traps.

Q: You must be pretty fit.

A: My dad is. I'm getting there!

Q: How much lobster do you bring in?

A: Ideally we get one good one out of every trap, and come home with 300 pounds.

Q: Does that happen often?

A: I would say that we average 280 pounds, from 300 traps.

Q: How do you know where to put the traps? Is it every man for himself out there?

A: Kind of, but at the same time, people have been out there for years and have respect for each other. We're hauling inside the harbor, out to Peaks Island, right there by Commercial Street, not that far out. But we've found this year it's getting better if we head down off Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, then out toward the ocean. We've actually found good stuff this year.

Q: What time do you go out?

A: We typically leave at 6:30 or 7 when I go, and come back at 2:30, and I open the shop with all we caught that day.

Q: Do you sell out daily?

A: There are days when we do. We sold out Thursday. We do wholesale as well, including a couple of restaurants in New York, and here locally the Grill Room, Front Room and Corner Room, to them daily.

Q: How does the retail/wholesale break down?

A: The store typically does about 60 pounds in the three-hour time slot, 2:30 to 5:30. The rest is wholesale.

Q: You're down the wharf a little bit, off Commercial -- do people find you?

A: Well, that's been a challenge of ours. We've put signs out with an arrow pointing down the wharf. And then the parking here is all permit parking, for people typically working in office buildings on Commercial Street. So there's a lot of walk-by business, and word-of-mouth. The Lucky Catch, a tour lobster boat, is a good friend, so they send people to us.

Q: When did you open?

A: In July. We'll try to run into November. Right now we have soft-shells, and in November we'll be starting to have hard-shell lobsters. Wholesale will continue through the winter, and possibly retail if the demand is there. We'll reopen in late spring/early summer, when the soft-shell season begins.

Q: Have the fuel prices gotten better?

A: Yes. But I also pay a little more, to help offset my father's fuel cost. I would do the same if I were buying from another boat. I'm not looking to make a huge margin. ... How much do I pay? I'll just say that it's about 50 cents more (per pound) than boat price.

Q: And the retail price is ...

A: Subject to boat price, but today it's $3.49 for chx (chicks), the 1-pound lobsters. The 11/4 to 11/2 sell for $4.49, and 2 pounds is $5.49. Everyone asks for 2-pounders, but they're kinda rare, especially for us. We might have one or two in the daily catch.

Q: So, you opened the retail store to help deal with the low prices?

A: Typically how it works is, the lobsterman sells the catch to a dealer. The dealer then turns around and sells to (retailers), and they sell it to the consumer. So every time it's turned over, the price goes up, but the lobsterman is getting the lowest price. So this year we thought we would try to do the selling directly, and my grandfather said, 'there's an extra building on the wharf ...' So basically we're trying to cut out the middlemen and provide lobsters straight from the source.

Q: Not all families could handle the family-biz thing.

A: You mean, working with the family? I love it. It's a close-knit family and we enjoy each other and what we do.

What's also cool is that people come in and can see my dad taking lobsters off the boat, and ask lots of questions. Especially tourists, can learn from someone who does it. How many traps, what's the difference between a male and female lobster ...

Some people prefer the males for taste, only because some females, when you cut into the tail, will have started to develop eggs. You're not allowed to catch females with visible eggs on them. But I don't eat lobster, so I don't know all the specifics in regards to taste.

Q: You, uh -- ?

A: It's just gross. I don't eat any seafood. My dad used to come home, smelling like dead fish ... I tried lobster once, when I was in my senior year in high school. I doused it in butter and took a bite and swallowed and said, 'I'm done. No more.'''

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