July 5, 2013

In Maine, lobster processing finally catches up

Several new plants open to fill the void that last season's glut exposed, giving the industry more control over its product.

The Associated Press

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Kyle Murdock
click image to enlarge

In this Friday, June 28, 2013, photo, workers shuck cooked lobster meat at the Sea Hag Lobster Processing plant in Tenants Harbor, Maine. New lobster processors are opening in Maine following last year's turbulent lobster season when Canadian fishermen were blocking truckloads of Maine-caught lobster from delivery at processors there. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Kyle Murdock
click image to enlarge

In this Friday, June 28, 2013, photo, Kyle Murdock, owner of Sea Hag Lobster Processing, holds a tray of lobster tails in a refrigerator at his plant in Tenants Harbor, Maine. New lobster processors are opening in Maine following last year's turbulent lobster season when Canadian fishermen were blocking truckloads of Maine-caught lobster from delivery at processors there. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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The legs and claws are boiled in a 350-gallon cooker, and workers pick the meat out of the legs and crack open the claws so they can shake out the meat in one piece. The meat is packed in 2-pound bags and frozen in a freezer at minus 40 degrees.

Similar scenes are playing out across Maine in new places.

A Portland lobster wholesaler, Ready Seafood, opened a plant in Scarborough in September and plans to process about a million pounds this year. Richmond-based Shuck's Lobster plans to open another plant in Portland next year that will double its processing capacity.

Luke's Lobster, a chain of 11 lobster roll eateries in New York, Washington and Philadelphia, started a new business to open its own processing plant in Saco this spring, solely to process products for its stores. President Luke Holden said the plant gives the company more control over supply.

"We're interested in controlling our own destiny and making sure what we get is a high-quality product," Holden said.

The largest of the state's new processing plants opened in June in a 100,000-square-foot plant in Prospect Harbor in eastern Maine that used to house the nation's last sardine cannery, which closed three years ago. Maine Fair Trade Lobster won't divulge its production goals, but it already has nearly 100 employees and plans to have 300 within three years, said spokeswoman Christina Ferranti-Clift.

Besides creating jobs, the increased lobster processing will help Maine brand its lobster products, said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. The Maine catch that's now processed in Canada is sold as a Canadian product even though it was caught in Maine.

There are obstacles to growth – most notably a shortage of workers and high energy costs -- but Keliher expects processing capacity to grow fast in the years ahead.

"While live markets exist all over the world, a big part of the future of Maine lobster lies in processed, easy-to-use products," he said.

Murdock concurred, noting that the future of the industry depends on processing because most people don't want to cook a live lobster in their kitchen.

"The American consumer," he said, "wants a convenient product."

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