GOULDSBORO, Maine — When it comes to bringing the local sardine cannery back to life as a lobster processing plant, Antonio Bussone knows his firm has a sizable challenge ahead.
“It is not an easy thing to put together,” Bussone, the president of Live Lobster Co. Inc., said during a phone interview Friday morning. “It’s a big deal.”
On Wednesday, Bumble Bee Foods announced it had signed a purchase and sale agreement to sell the cannery, which ceased operations in April, to Live Lobster Co. of Chelsea, Mass. If the deal goes through, Live Lobster would take ownership of the plant sometime in October and begin working to convert the cannery into a lobster processing plant.
The waterfront facility, which was the last sardine cannery in the United States, employed 128 people when it shut down. Live Lobster has indicated it hopes to employ up to 40 people at the plant within the first year and as many as 120 by 2012.
Getting processing under way at the now empty plant won’t happen this year, but Live Lobster would like to start lobster purchasing and bait sales in Prospect Harbor as soon as possible, Bussone said.
“We’re trying to work on an agreement [with Bumble Bee] to lease the facility immediately,” he said. “We don’t want to waste the second half of the season.”
Live Lobster Co. now employs 80 to 90 people, most of them in Maine at buying stations in Phippsburg, Rockland, Spruce Head and Stonington, according to Bussone. It also employs three or four people at a buying station in Gloucester, Mass., he said, and about 30 at its main offices in Chelsea, near Logan Airport in Boston. Live Lobster was founded in 2001 and began operations in Maine the next year, he said.
Live Lobster is exclusively a live lobster distributor that sells to wholesalers in Europe, Asia and across the United States, Bussone said. The plant in Prospect Harbor would be its first foray into lobster processing.
Bussone said Live Lobster is looking to find partners, both in and outside the Schoodic Peninsula area, to make the processing operation a success. Bringing in a larger company in the seafood business such as Atlanta-based Inland Seafood is a possibility, he said, but he stressed that he was referring to Inland just as an example.
Still, he added, “I wouldn’t rule [Inland Seafood] out.”
Inland has a buying station in Prospect Harbor on a dock it leases next to the defunct cannery.
“We are looking to set up a joint venture [with someone],” Bussone said. “The community also will be very important. We will need their support and their [lobster].”
Bussone said Live Lobster plans to process lobster meat at the plant for use by wholesalers and restaurants. Cooked lobster tails, cooked claw meat and raw tails are among the products it expects to produce, he said.
The company has no plans at this time to produce direct-to-consumer products in Prospect Harbor, Bussone said. He said the market for raw lobster consumer products, such as those made by Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, is fairly small.
But Bussone said the plant, which is fairly large, will have to be diversified enough to operate beyond the traditional limits of the Maine lobster fishing season, which generally runs from June through November. Toward that end, he said, Live Lobster also is looking into processing shrimp and crab at the facility, to help ensure that it stays productive and that its employees have year-round work.
Bussone said that the value of Maine’s lobster industry is often cited as the estimated total of what fishermen get for their catch when they deliver it to the dock, which last year was slightly more than $220 million.
But Bussone said that its value really is much higher if you consider the rest of the supply chain between the fisherman and the consumer. If lobster caught in Maine can be processed and distributed from Maine, local residents will benefit from the added value those operations bring to the state’s economy, he said.
“When the lobsters land on the wharf, that is not the end of it. It is the beginning,” Bussone said. “You could double the value of the fishery.”
Aside from the scope and type of operations that Live Lobster has planned for Prospect Harbor, one burning question that has been on the minds of Schoodic Peninsula residents is the fate of the iconic Stinson Seafood fisherman sign outside the plant.
The sign, which is a metal fisherman about 30 feet tall holding a large tin of Beach Cliff sardines, has been outside the facility for decades, since the plant was owned and operated by the local Stinson family. A photograph of the fisherman sign wearing a gigantic Santa hat and trimmed in Christmas lights is on the front of Gouldsboro’s 2010 annual town report.
Bussone said Live Lobster expects to inherit the sign and to keep it where it is. The only thing about the sign that might change, he said, is replacing the sardine tin with a giant lobster.
“We’re talking about it,” Bussone said. “We haven’t decided.”