August 17, 2012

Maine panel OKs marketing blitz to sell more lobster

Officials say it's worth the $3 million cost to increase demand and prices, but lobstermen may resist any fees.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – The state's Lobster Advisory Council voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with a $3 million plan to market Maine lobster in an effort to boost prices, which are at their lowest level in 30 years.

click image to enlarge

This August 5, 2005 file photo shows lobsters at The Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland. The state's Lobster Advisory Council voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with a $3 million plan to market Maine lobster in an effort to boost prices, which are at their lowest level in 30 years.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

The details of the marketing plan and the way it gets funded -- such as through higher lobster license fees -- must be determined by the state Legislature.

The 11-member council approved the plan during a meeting that drew about 50 people from the lobster industry. Some lobstermen balked at the idea of higher fees, but others embraced the idea of marketing to try to increase demand for Maine's most abundant seafood.

"For about $500 more, you're buying $3 million of promotion," said Peter Miller, a lobsterman from Tenants Harbor, estimating what increased fees would cost him. "That's a pretty good investment. Hopefully it will lead to more consumption as demand increases, and more demand will lead to higher prices.

"I see advertisements for California dairy on TV in Maine," he said. "Why can't they see ads for Maine lobster there?"

The $3 million campaign would far exceed the Lobster Advisory Council's current marketing budget of about $400,000. The new budget and marketing effort would be phased in over three years.

Critics of the idea cited its potential cost to lobstermen.

"It's hitting people who already have been hit. The cost of fishing is already so high -- bait prices and diesel prices are up," said Randy Johnson, manager of the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-Op. "If they increase the fees on dealers, that's going to eventually come out of the lobstermen, too.

"On a normal boat-price year, it might be one thing, but when you have prices where they are now, it's hard to ask them to pay additional fees," Johnson said. "Changes in advertising isn't going to trickle down and help the lobstermen."

The average commodity group spends about 1 percent of its production value on marketing, said John Sauve, president of the Food and Wellness Group, who was hired by the Lobster Advisory Council to study the potential of a marketing campaign.

Last year's catch of about 105 million pounds was worth more than $330 million at wholesale prices. Lobstermen are now getting $2 to $2.50 a pound for their catch, down from $3.19 a pound last year.

The concept of marketing a commodity is not new. Campaigns have pitched everything from milk to pork to beef and even pistachio nuts.

The "Got Milk?" advertising campaign increased California's milk sales for the first time in more than a decade after it was introduced in 1993.

Almost 20 years later, the "Got Milk?" campaign is part of the national lexicon.

Lobsters should be so lucky.

"To get the consumption of lobster to increase has some hurdles," said Barbara Sullivan, managing partner of a branding and marketing agency in New York. "It's perceived to be difficult to cook and eat. It's not sold in every store. You have to buy it live or very quickly."

In an interview Thursday, she said, "I would try a targeted campaign in some isolated markets where you can set benchmarks and determine whether you're getting a return for your investment. That's opposed to a broad, national campaign that they probably don't have the resources to do."

The lobster industry's economics came into focus this month, as Canadian lobstermen set up blockades to prevent low-priced Maine lobster from being shipped to processors in New Brunswick.

Gov. Paul LePage met with two of Maine's lobster processors last week, and the administration said the state needed to increase demand for Maine lobsters.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources, which includes the Lobster Advisory Council, said the Maine lobster brand must be promoted if processing plants in the state are to be financially viable.

This summer's glut of soft-shell lobsters has prompted promotions such as coupons from Hannaford Supermarkets urging customers to buy lobster to support "over 300 local lobstermen in New England."

Hannaford gets its lobster from New Meadows Lobster in Portland.

The Maine Lobster Promotion Council and the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber say they will host "Lobsterpalooza" in Rockland and Camden from Aug. 26-31 "to raise enthusiasm for eating lobster and celebrating an abundant supply in the midcoast this summer." Lobsterpalooza will feature everything from a free lobster for those who get special spa treatments to cooking classes and cash mobs to spend money at markets selling lobsters.

The event is part of the Maine Lobster Lovers Celebration, created by the Lobster Promotion Council.

 

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@mainetoday.com

 

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