A year after the coronavirus pandemic devastated Maine’s usual lobster markets, and as the industry braces for yet another onslaught of changes brought about by right whale regulations, state legislators are proposing a bill to reauthorize the organization that markets Maine’s signature shellfish for at least five more years.

The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, created in 2013 to replace the Lobster Promotion Council, promotes Maine lobster to restaurants, cruise ships, casinos, hotels and, especially within the past year, to grocery stores and home cooks.  

Its $2.2 million annual budget is funded by surcharges on state-issued lobster licenses. The surcharges are not set to change under the proposed legislation.

The collaborative’s five-year authorization is set to expire in October, but according to Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, it’s more important than ever that the group’s work continues.

The industry faced “new and previously unimaginable challenges across this past spring, and many of the major markets for lobster … were shuttered overnight,” he said. “It’s critical that this industry, which is so integral to the economic health of Maine’s coastal communities, has a mechanism to promote its product and buffer it against changing market conditions.” 

Dustin Delano, lobsterman, board member and vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the industry can’t afford to lose its contribution, especially after last year and ahead of the changes expected to come from a number of proposed measures intended to reduce risk to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale by up to 98 percent.

Lobstermen and Maine officials have been outspoken about the potential impact those rules could have on the lobster industry. In a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Keliher said it would necessitate an entire reinvention of one of the state’s primary economic drivers.

“We can’t just scrap this resource,” Delano said about the collaborative. “I look at it as a lifeline … (and) it’s part of what made us get through the 2020 season.” 

But not everyone feels that way. 

Speaking on behalf of the Maine Lobstering Union Local 207 and the union-owned cooperative marketing operation, Lobster 207, lobsterwoman Virginia Olsen said the industry is not in position to support a marketing program. 

Lobstermen are “fighting for their very existence,” she said. “To ask fishermen to pay for promotions for an industry they’re fighting for just doesn’t sit well with them.

“With a 98 percent reduction in our fishery, we cannot support a marketing program,” she said. “If regulations and rising costs continue, we will be the next endangered species and we will not need a marketing program.” 

Maile Buker, vice president of marketing for Hannaford supermarkets and a member of the collaborative, said the grocery store chain sold roughly 1.3 million pounds of Maine lobster in 2020, a 175 percent increase from the year before. When the pandemic hit, many meat suppliers weren’t prepared to meet the demand, but Maine seafood suppliers helped fill that gap.

The shelves have meat on them once again, but the demand for lobster has continued, she said.

“Marketing is absolutely critical to food retail,” she said, and it can “guide customers to prepare foods in ways they never imagined.” 

Lobster hasn’t just been a hit with Hannaford. 

According to Marianne LaCroix, director of the collaborative, the organization has attracted over 350,000 visits to its online dealer inventory and found that 43 percent of wholesalers are more likely to buy Maine lobster because of its marketing campaign. Nearly 600,000 customers have said they are more likely to buy Maine lobster after the collaborative’s 2020 consumer ad campaign, LaCroix said, and they plan to continue to increase demand through social media outreach and new product innovation among other efforts. 

The industry is facing “grave threats” over the next few years, through proposed regulations and competition for use of the ocean bottom from various industries, she said, and the collaboration is poised to help deal with those concerns. 

Brian Langley, former legislator, collaborative board member and owner of the Union River Lobster Pot restaurant in Ellsworth, said the upcoming marketing plan focuses on promoting the lobster industry as a sustainable fishery, and the lobstermen as stewards of the environment.

In the past, 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 came under fire from some lobstermen, dealers and the lobstermen’s union. They claimed the strategy doesn’t help those who harvest new-shells late in the fall, devotes 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.

The dealers were especially frustrated, saying they pay the lion’s share of the license surcharge and get the least out of it.

Fees range 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.

As proposed, L.D. 338 would have funded the collaborative indefinitely, but members of the Committee on Marine Resources voted Tuesday to instead authorize the group for another five years. 

“When you make this go indefinitely, it takes a lot of that accountability out of it,” said Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor. 

In general, the idea of marketing is pretty well supported among fishermen, he said, noting that it worked well for the blueberry industry, but that there are still too many question marks. 

“Maybe after they’ve proved themselves for a number of years,” he said. 

Rep. Sherman Hutchins, R-Penobscot, agreed that the sunset clause was a good idea. 

“Any government program funded indefinitely could get lazy pretty easily,” he said. 

Plus, with impending concerns about a series of proposed right whale regulations and offshore wind projects, “it’s hard to say where we’re going to be in a few years with landings,” he said. “They’re not going to want an endless fee if they’re afraid in two or three years they’re going to be out of business altogether.”

Keliher also supported the five-year extension, adding that the industry is hoping to have some stability in the next three to five years. 

The collaborative must report back to the committee annually. 


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