Lobster Prospects

Posted Aug. 06, 2010, at 6:23 p.m.

The news this week that a lobster distribution and processing company plans to move into the former Bumble Bee sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor is good news on two fronts. First, a viable business in the plant means needed jobs for Hancock and Washington counties. Second, Maine has long needed to process more of its trademark lobster in the state.

In April, the sardine cannery — the last in the United States — was shut down. Its owner, Bumble Bee Foods, blamed new federal restrictions on herring harvesting for the closure.

The plant processed herring into sardines for more than 100 years. It employed 128 people when it closed.

Since then, Gov. John Baldacci and the state’s congressional delegation have been looking to find a new tenant. Lobster processing had long been mentioned as a possibility.

For good reason, about half of Maine’s lobsters now go to Canada for processing. Companies across the border have some advantages. For example, Canada has huge groundfish resources and can process fish and lobster year- round. Maine’s fishery is mostly lobster with a six- or seven-month season.

However, it is shortchanging an iconic Maine product to have it sent across the border to be removed from the shell and put into a can labeled a product of Canada. Several Maine companies are working on innovative ways to process and market lobster with an emphasis on making it a more consumer-friendly product.

The Prospect Harbor facility can now be part of that effort.

This week, it was announced that Live Lobster Co. of Chelsea, Mass., has agreed to buy the former sardine plant. In a press release, San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods announced it expects to transfer ownership of the plant to the Massachusetts lobster distributor within the next 70 days. The waterfront plant is expected to employ 40 people within the first year and to begin full processing operations in 2011, according to Bumble Bee. By 2012, the plant is projected to employ as many as 120 people, the release said.

“Live Lobster has assured me that the company is committed to Maine, to Prospect Harbor and to building a state-of-the-art seafood processing facility,” Gov. Baldacci said in the release.The new facility will not solve the economic woes in Hancock and Washington counties or stabilize the lobster industry, but it can be a part of the solution for both problems.

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