When the Stinson Cannery in Gouldsboro closed, it seemed like Maine was moving in the wrong direction. Instead of adding natural resource processing jobs, the economy was shedding the very last cannery in the state and the 128 good jobs that went with it. This didn’t make sense – this state’s economy was based for decades on the understanding that Mainers could find good work in adding value to the products of the forests, fields and fisheries.
With the encouragement of state government, my company, Live Lobster, decided to take up the challenge of reinvigorating the facility and converting it into a processing facility for Maine lobster, Maine’s iconic product. With the addition of our facility in Gouldsboro, there are only four lobster processors in Maine as opposed to 18 in Atlantic Canada.
We knew there would be difficulties in succeeding where a big company like Bumble Bee Foods had given up, but we believed that a key building block in the future of Maine’s coastal communities is an active seafood processing industry.
Our vision for this facility aligns perfectly with the larger opportunities in the Maine economy. We want to do our part to reverse the trend in which lobsters are harvested in Maine waters, sent to Canadian processing facilities, and then purchased back by American distributors and consumers, with the profits and tax revenues from our signature industry being largely captured by foreign companies and the Canadian government.
The lobster processing industry is a prosperous industry, and it should bring prosperity to Maine. Instead, processed Maine lobster has become a Canadian product.
With its economic history of paper mills, potato and blueberry farms, canneries and tourism, Maine has long understood the importance of making good use of the plentiful natural resources with which it has been blessed. The state has prospered in part because of the economic benefit of these industries, with spillover effects that go far beyond the families who work these jobs and the dollars that spread to the communities and regions that host them.
Despite record catches, Maine’s lobster industry is in danger because it lacks an essential element of a strong natural resources economy — the local processing of the product and the financial benefit to the local economy.
The economic impact for the families and communities involved in harvesting is amplified when a natural resource is processed or improved here in the state. This holds true when a tree is turned into paper, when potatoes are cut into French fries and when lobsters are processed for consumers.
Maine needs to tap into the immense opportunities that will exist if we build a lobster processing industry in Maine. This can generate tens of millions of dollars of economic activity for the state and keep these dollars from flowing to Canada. It can be done, but it will require the concerted efforts of businesspeople, government and coastal communities working together in our common interest.
Since last August, my company’s initial attempts to keep some of this work in Maine have been challenging. We have made a very serious investment, spending more than $2 million in facilities improvements and putting 75 full-time employees on our payroll, most of them former Stinson cannery employees who had been out of work for almost 18 months.
We are creating a business where none has existed before and we have faced significant challenges working with government agencies, local economic interests and Canadian competitors in the industry. In spite of this, thanks to our dedicated workforce and excellent local managers, we are gaining a significant market share and producing a superb product.
Maine people are proving that lobster processing is an industry that can support economic development in Down East Maine. My company is privileged to be part of this.
If we are to continue to be globally successful in an increasingly competitive environment that sends good Maine jobs overseas and out of the country, Maine needs to get back to its successful economic roots and develop a thriving, value-added natural resource economy. My company has committed to this effort and others will certainly do the same as our commitment proves successful.
I urge our state and regional leaders to work together to put Maine people to work in lobster processing facilities to ensure that processed lobster is a Maine product and to create stable jobs for coastal families. I welcome anyone who is interested to visit us in Gouldsboro and see what our people are doing.
Antonio Bussone is president of Live Lobster, based in Chelsea, Mass.