Chinese businessmen to tour Maine’s blueberry, lobster operations

Posted June 16, 2010, at 2:08 p.m.

It’s not unusual for visitors to Maine to seek out and sample some of the state’s blueberries and lobsters before they head home.

But a group of visitors that are expected to learn about these Maine staples on Friday are not your usual tourists from out of state. They are businessmen from China who are coming to Maine to see whether there might be investment and trade opportunities with some of Maine’s favorite homegrown foods.

Janine Bisaillon-Cary of Maine International Trade Center said Monday that MITC is not involved in the visit, which has been organized by independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. She said the potential for Maine to boost its blueberry and seafood exports to China is significant, however.

New England states exported $636 million worth of seafood to China in 2009, but only $244,000 of it came from Maine, according to Bisaillon-Cary. Of that $636 million in New England seafood exports, she said, roughly half of it was in the form of lobster.

She pointed out that Maine is the largest lobster-producing state in the country. Lobstermen based in Maine caught 75 million pounds of lobster in 2009 and usually catch roughly 80 percent of all lobster harvested in the United States.

“It says to me there’s a lot that can be done,” toward boosting Maine’s lobster exports to China, Bisaillon-Cary said of the overall export figures.

She said there is similar potential in Maine’s blueberry industry. New England states exported $1.7 million in fruits and nuts — most of which is blueberries, she said — in 2009 while Canada sent $6.6 million of the same type of food to the Asian country.

Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Council, said Wednesday that there is good potential for expanding the market for Maine lobster in China if exporters can find partners who will work effectively with the shipments. The distance of shipping refrigerated live lobster to China is a challenge, he said, but if an importer can get the shipped lobster into saltwater tanks as quickly as possible when they arrive in China, it will help ensure that Chinese buyers obtain good lobsters.

“You really do need a partner on the China side of the equation,” Somers said. “The logistics are very, very tight.”

Somers said that establishing contacts with the Chinese businessmen is important. Maine seafood dealers are expected to attend a trade show in Hong Kong this September, he added.

“It’s very timely,” Somers said of the Chinese group’s visit this week. “The potential in China is absolutely enormous for the Maine lobster industry.”

According to the Cutler campaign, the group of four businessmen from China are involved in the country’s food import and investment fund industries. They are expected to visit Jasper Wyman & Sons blueberry-growing operations in Cherryfield and Deblois on Friday afternoon. From there, they will continue to the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, where they will learn about efforts by Maine Halibut Farms to develop commercially viable techniques to cultivate halibut in captivity. Maine Halibut Farms has been incubating its business at the research center but is hoping to move its expanding operations to a former Navy site in Gouldsboro.

Earlier on Friday, the group is expected to observe lobster fishing on Casco Bay and to learn about the industry’s sustainability, according to a statement released Monday by Cutler. While in the Portland area, the group also will tour Portland Shellfish Co., a seafood processor that exports lobster and other shellfish to more than 20 countries.

Bisaillon-Cary said MITC has no plans to meet with the group from China, in part because the businessmen are expected to be in Maine only one or two days. She said that MITC frequently is involved in organizing trips to import trade shows in China and that the quasi-public entity will continue to help Maine companies looking to do business in China.

“We’ve been working with a lot of companies in the Chinese market in the last five to seven years,” she said. “I’ve no doubt that we’ll be [involved in some sort of trade trip] to China in the next 12 to 24 months.”

According to the Cutler campaign, Cutler lived in China for two years while developing business opportunities and opening a Beijing office for his law firm.

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