Maine lobster is sweet, it’s sustainable and it’s harvested from Maine’s pristine waters and rocky shores by a close-knit community of fishermen who have worked hard to protect the resource.

Those are some of the messages that the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative is hoping to convey as the group ramps up efforts to increase global appetite for lobster with harvests reaching record levels in recent years, causing prices to sag.

The message is already being heard. On the Fourth of July, lobster provided by the collaborative will be made into Maine lobster rolls and grilled lobster tail skewers by award-winning Boston chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch for 1,200 guests at the U.S. Embassy in Japan.

In the weeks ahead, the collaborative will announce a team of chef ambassadors who will showcase lobster on their menus. In the fall, the collaborative will launch new content on the website of the Culinary Institute of America, which will include recipe ideas, plus videos that show the sustainable fishing practices of Maine lobstermen and demonstrate basic lobster handling and preparation techniques.

John Barkley, the culinary institute’s director of strategic initiatives for digital, media and video, said that there’s a tremendous need for this kind of training.

“A lot of chefs just don’t know how to work with the whole live lobster, how to break it down and make sure it’s cooked properly,” Barkley said. Just as important is educating them about the sustainable fishing practices of Maine lobstermen, he said.

“At a time when it seems like no matter what type of seafood you use – it’s either threatened or unsustainable in the way that it’s harvested or caught – this is a real success story, and something we feel chefs should know about,” Barkley said.

The collaborative’s efforts were prompted by successive years of declining prices. Maine lobstermen caught 125.9 million pounds of lobster in 2013, down slightly from 2012, but up over the past five years, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. But price per pound averaged $2.89 in 2013, up from $2.69 in 2012 and down from as much as $4.63 a pound in 2005.

The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, formed in December, has an 11-member board made up of lobstermen, lobster dealers, members of the public and state agency representatives. Its $750,000 budget for the current fiscal year is funded by a surcharge on licenses issued to lobstermen, processors and dealers. The budget is projected to grow to $1.5 million in 2015 and $2.2 million per year in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The collaborative replaced the Lobster Promotion Council, a smaller group that had been in place since 1991 and had an annual budget of $350,000.

Lobster officials are hopeful about the boost the bigger marketing push could provide.

“We feel like building more consumer demand for Maine lobster will be a huge help to harvesters,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Last year, the Lobster Promotion Council hired Futureshift, a New York-based consulting firm to help define the Maine lobster brand and refine a marketing strategy.

Futureshift’s report, which included input from chefs, journalists and lobster industry professionals, concluded that there was an opportunity to market lobster’s distinctive sweet flavor, sustainable fishing practices and its connection to the iconic image of Maine that’s so popular.

“The brand ‘Maine’ has enormous value, even for people who have never been to Maine,” said Jon Stamell, chief executive of FutureShift. “They associate it with a clean environment, rocky shorelines, hard-working people, and all kinds of things that you want to hear.”

Just as important is getting the word out that lobster can meet the growing appetite for local, sustainable foods.

“So many fisheries are overfished,” said Marianne La Croix, acting executive director of the collaborative. “But for 140 years, there have been measures in place to protect and uphold the sustainability of the resource. Maine lobsters are a real success story because of those measures taken by the community of lobstermen and lobster dealers.”

Last year, the lobster fishery obtained the Marine Stewardship Council’s Sustainable Seafood Certification. The designation certifies that the fishery is using ecologically sound practices from the harvest to the consumer.

FLAVORFUL EDUCATION

In addition to promoting lobster through social media and newsletters, initially the marketing effort will target chefs, restaurateurs and food service professionals.

“The chefs and retail buyers are really the influencers who have the connection with the consumers,” said LaCroix. “Looking at the funds we have in the future year, we needed to be efficient.”

Industry officials are also hoping to promote the distinct flavor of Maine lobster, La Croix said. While lobsters are caught year round, the majority are caught during the shedding season, between July and November. That meat has a sweeter flavor and a more tender texture than lobster caught in other parts of the life cycle, she said.

Education efforts have had a huge impact on Steve Corry, chef and owner of 555 and Petite Jacqueline. Though lobster has always fit well with his efforts to serve locally sourced, sustainable foods, his interest in serving it grew two years ago after he got the opportunity to go out on a lobster boat and see the harvesting and processing firsthand.

“The care and detail that go into the actual management of this fishery was really impressive,” he said. “It really made me respect it more, and want to feature it more often on the menu.”

What’s more, the nature of the meat makes it easy to innovate.

The tenderness of the meat from the knuckle and the claw, he explained, make it ideal for dishes like his truffled lobster macaroni and cheese, served at 555. The tail, which has a firmer meat, holds up better and is ideal for homard en papillote, or lobster in parchment paper.

“It fits into our menu brilliantly,” said Corry. “It’s a versatile seafood that can be prepared so many different ways.”