Jaymes Hood holds a bag of live lobsters at Maine Shellfish Company , a wholesale operation that opened a pop-up store in Kennebunk on April 3. Another local wholesaler has a year-round fish market, and some lobster fishermen are selling from their boats as the Asian and domestic market for shellfish has slumped as the coronavirus hit. Some wholesalers say the’re starting to see signs of demand picking up a bit. Tammy Wells photo

Toward the middle of last week, just as March was turning into April, boat prices for lobster – the amount wholesalers were paying fishermen for their catch – was starting to inch up a bit, a couple of local wholesalers say. The boat price had been at about $3.75 a pound for a while, one wholesaler estimated, and some thought it might come close to $5 by the end of last week.

That is a small sign of good news in a glum economy for seafood, whether it be lobster or other shellfish. Prices are inching up, and there’s some demand, though at present the supply isn’t robust.

In the long run, there’s optimism, at least on the part of one wholesaler, Michael Marceau, who owns The Lobster Co. on Route 1 in Arundel with his wife Stephanie Nedeau.

“It’ll come back,” said Marceau. The Lobster Co. has been shipping lobster to Asia for 30 years as well as to domestic markets. He said the company did “very well” until the Chinese imposed tariffs on American goods, including lobster, in response to tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by the U.S government. Then, on March 2, the Chinese government paved a way for their buyers to import American lobster again as part of a January trade deal with the U.S. “By then, we were knee deep in the coronavirus and had no one to ship to,” said Marceau.

He said The Lobster Co. is operating with a crew of six; after laying off eight workers.

The retail store, he said is doing well.

At Maine Shellfish Company in Kennebunk,  part of the Massachusetts-based Ipswich Shellfish Group, general manager Scott Daskoski said innovations like last weekend’s “pop-up” shop, at the company’s 5 Alewive Road facility is a “way to make lemonade out of lemons.”

He said the company is poised to run the pop-up shop again Thursday, April 9 and Friday, April 10.

Shellfish wholesalers like The Lobster Co. in Arundel said they’re optimistic about the future but noted the coronavirus has hit hard, affecting Asian and domestic markets for shellfish. Still, last week company officials said they were seeing some signs of increased demand. Dan King Photo

Maine Shellfish Company sells lobster, clams and other seafood to restaurants, hotels, colleges, hospitals at the like, in Maine and New Hampshire. With the coronavirus ratcheting up, those markets dwindled. And recently, Daskoski said, three seasonal restaurant customers that were considering opening up, decided against it.

Another restaurant, which was doing a successful takeout business, stopped because customers were not complying with social distancing directives and the owner felt it wasn’t safe.

Daskoski said when the downtown began, he had to lay off 18 workers, leaving eight full-time and six part-time workers at the company’s two Kennebunk locations, 43 Old Alewive Road and 5 Alewive Park Road

Whether the summer season can be salvaged, is “to be determined,” he said. Daskoski said some restaurants will re-open and some won’t.

Another factor he pointed out, is also the rising cost of air freight, because there are fewer flights – which increases the cost of the product.

A couple of Cape Porpoise fishermen, Jonathan Nunan and Colby Nunan, have also been “making lemonade,” each selling their lobster catch themselves when they’re not out fishing.

Jonathan Nunan, 32, said he’s held a commercial lobstering license since he was 12 or 13 years old in a family whose fishing roots go back generations. Married, with a wife and eight-month-old child, he said selling from the boat at $6 a pound pays his expenses.

Nunan, who bought a new boat, the 42-foot Bella Marie, last year, said the boat price from dealers dropped from $5.50 to $3 a pound overnight when the virus began to hit a couple of week ago. He said he uses two drums of redfish bait a day, at $225 per drum, with payroll for his one crew member and boat fuel to buy, he decided to sell his catch himself.

“I’m focusing on paying bills,” said Nunan. This time of year, Nunan, who fishes year-round, said he brings traps home for repair, and is doing other related tasks to get ready for “the big shed,” in July and August and remains hopeful coronavirus will be gone by then.

Colby Nunan, who fishes with his father Chris aboard the Chelsea Rae, also out of Cape Porpoise, graduated in 2019 with a degree in finance and business for the University of Southern Maine.

Colby Nunan, 26, grew upon the water with his brother, Cody, and sister, Chelsea.

He returned to work with his father last year, and it reminded him, he said, of his passion for fishing,

As prices fell, he began selling lobsters from the boat.

“Actually, it was my family’s plan all along, ” said Nunan. He said he’s leased Sanborn’s fish market at 130 Main St., in Kennebunkport where he plans to sell live lobsters, other seafood, local produce and will also take orders for cooked lobsters.

“I’ve always liked the business life and now that I found an effective way to combine both, I think I found my calling,” he said.

At Maine Shellfish Company, Daskoski said companies can look at their operations and figure out how to continue to be creative even when the current situation changes.

“What do we need to do different, how we communicate with our customers,” he said. “We’ll be there for our customers.”

Marceau, at The Lobster Co., said the industry is changing. For years, wholesalers were largely family-run companies, but now, he sees more corporate models.

As the days pass, Marceau and operating manager Bull Bruns both said the company is starting to receive orders.

“Before the trade war, China was No. 1, and will continue to be, it still has the largest growing middle class,” hungry for lobster,” said Bruns.

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