Despite grumbling from lobster dealers, the state Lobster Advisory Council voted unanimously Thursday to continue funding the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.

The collaborative is about to begin the final year of its five-year mission to promote the state’s signature product. It wants the Legislature to renew its authorization, and its $2.2 million a year budget funded by surcharges on state-issued lobster licenses. But it needs the support of the people that its work is serving – the individual lobster zone councils and the Lobster Advisory Council that oversees it all.

Thursday’s endorsement from the statewide council gave the organization a perfect scorecard with local lobster regulators, having already won approval from all seven lobster zone councils. The state Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association also support the organization, praising and defending the agency in front of the very legislative committee that will be tasked with its reauthorization next year.

South Thomaston lobsterman Robert “Bob” Baines told fellow council members that he realized the importance of what the collaborative does when he attended one of its “Maine After Midnight” tasting parties for chefs in San Francisco in August. He and four other Maine lobstermen spent 48 hours sharing the story of Maine lobster with an array of the city’s most influential chefs. The experience surprised him, Baines admitted.

“Everybody who we talked to was really interested in Maine lobster,” said Baines, who introduced the reauthorization motion. “The cost of the trip? I have no idea. Was it valuable to do? Absolutely. There were five fishermen on that trip, and they took three other trips like that, and the amount of people we talked to, well, I personally spoke to well over 100 people, and it was all positive. All positive.”



But the collaborative’s focus on using social media, lobster sightseeing trips and after-hours tasting parties to make high-end chefs from across the country fall in love with new-shell lobster has come under fire from some lobstermen, dealers and the lobstermen’s union. They claim the strategy doesn’t help those who harvest new-shells late in the fall, gives too much time, attention and funds to the harvester side of the story, and wastes license-holders money on strategies that don’t raise lobster prices.

These groups want the collaborative to focus on extending the new-shell consumer season into the fall, supporting efforts to sell new-shell lobster abroad, and cutting license surcharges, possibly even getting the state to kick in some money to fund the marketing effort for its top export.

The dealers are especially frustrated, saying they are paying the lion’s share of the license surcharge and getting the least out of it.

“I don’t know one dealer that has ever said they’ve made one dollar off this,” said John Hathaway, the president of Shucks Maine Lobster.

The collaborative’s chef strategy focuses on the harvester, but leaves the dealers out in the cold, said Annie Tselikis, director of marketing for Maine Coast out of York and the director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association. The harvesters and dealers, who often accuse the other of trying to get the upper hand, need to work together, Tselikis told the council and the collaborative representatives who attended the meeting Thursday.

“The chef strategy is not the best tactic for where we are as an industry and for how product actually gets to market,” said Tselikis, who sits on the collaborative’s board. “That’s a very, very long-term strategy and we are a very rapidly changing industry right now, a very dynamic market. … The dealers are on the front lines of that, and we see it and there is value in that. We need to be able to work together moving forward.”



Dealers like Hathaway want to work with the collaborative to market their lobster directly to the chefs who attend the after-hours parties, but the group has said the collaborative needs to be careful about promoting any particular dealer. Instead, the group directs chefs to the collaborative’s website, which has a list of state dealers that sell wholesale or retail Maine lobster.

Low boat prices make it hard for some in the industry to swallow the collaborative’s license surcharge. The fee ranges from as low as $165 a year for a lobsterman who fishes alone, to $1,200 for a wholesaler or lobster hauler, to $4,000 for the highest-volume processors. Some players in this industry hold more than one license, so they pay into the Lobster Promotion Fund that bankrolls the collaborative more than once.

Supporters argued that a state that relies so heavily on one product needs to make sure it is doing its best to sell that product. The cost of the license surcharge is not much more than what the average lobsterman spends on bait in a day, they argue. And state law created the collaborative to market lobster, not necessarily to raise the price, although growing demand undoubtedly must help.

“We aren’t making a sales pitch,” said collaborative director Matt Jacobson. “We want as many people as we can to talk about our story. That’s what sells lobster.”

While the collaborative points to website hits, social media mentions and attendance at its after-hours chef tasting parties as evidence of success, critics argue the only real metric of success in this $533 million-a-year industry is the price of lobsters, and unfortunately for the collaborative and the industry, the price has fallen this year even though the catch has been slow and global demand has been strong.



But Jacobson said there are some things that no marketing council can fix, no matter how well-funded it is. He blames low boat prices on things such as hurricanes that ruined the summer restaurant seasons in lobster-loving cities like Miami and Houston, and the trade deal between Canada and the European Union that put Maine lobsters at a huge competitive disadvantage with one of its biggest customers.

The collaborative plans to continue its focus on using chefs and the media to influence consumers, but Jacobson said the organization is open to changing some of its strategies. He said the collaborative will probably never use its limited budget to try to market Maine lobster abroad, because he doubts it has enough money to make an international splash in that kind of high-overhead market.

But he said it could explore more ways to stretch the new-shell season into fall, for example.

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

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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