ROQUE BLUFFS, Maine — Take a little side trip off U.S. Route 1 to the peninsula of Roque Bluffs and you are in lobster fishermen territory. It’s unusual for a yard not to have a boat in it. It’s odd to not see lobster traps piled beside a driveway or colorful buoys hanging from the mailbox. A closer look, however, reveals that some of the houses are faded and worn, sometimes the boats look a bit abandoned, and many of the pickup trucks have seen better days.
Everywhere are signs that there were high times once in this fishing village, times when lobsters were plentiful and the price was great — times before the nation’s economic crash.
No one knows that better than Nadine and Chad Preston — a fishing family that had it all, lost it all, and found a way back.
Less than two years ago, things were as bad as they could get, said Nadine, 35. The couple’s house was in foreclosure and their lobster boat was about to be repossessed. Nadine had been the sternman on the boat and had been placed on bed rest in the 16th week of a life-threatening pregnancy. The price of lobsters crashed. The day she brought her premature baby home from a Bangor hospital, the house ran out of oil.
“We were the perfect example of fishermen that had bit off more than we could chew,” Preston said recently. “We thought ‘How could the lobster industry fail? Everyone loves lobster.’ But across the country, people were not buying $25 lobster tails. They were trying to save their houses, too.”
In 2006, lobster prices had hit an all time high of $10 per pound, and in 2007 they hovered around $4.50, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. But prices this summer at the dock fell to as low as $1.25 a pound in some areas, roughly 70 percent below normal and a nearly 30-year low, according to fishermen.
Nadine said that her family was no different than those of many other lobstermen.
“We spent our money — hard earned, but still overspent — and when the economy collapsed, so did we. We were left with a huge house payment, a bigger boat payment, and all the bells and whistles, but the industry had fallen, and we were left fighting for what we had worked so hard to get.”
By the spring, the couple had become desperate. They were forced to dock their boat because they couldn’t afford the fuel. They borrowed from family and sold everything they owned.
“The only possession we had at the end of it was my wedding ring,” Nadine said.
Today — five months later — the house is safe, the $15,000 boat payment was made and the premature baby is an active toddler, chasing chickens and helping her mother in Mother Shuckers Clam Shack — the fresh seafood business Nadine created out of her frustration to find a way to get out of debt.
Chad, 38, goes to sea each day at 4 a.m. and brings his catch to Nadine. Then she sells it from the garage.
Mother Shuckers was founded on a cold day last spring after Chad had gone clamming for six hours and been paid only $26 by a dealer.
Something clicked in Nadine that day — call it desperation, pride or just plain stubbornness — but she got angry, she said, and that anger propelled her into action.
Nadine grabbed a piece of fiberglass board — actually the cutout window from an old boat hull — and she painted “Fresh Clams” on one side. She hung it from her mailbox by the road.
“We just couldn’t keep on doing business the way it had always been done,” she said. “We eliminated the middleman.”
Most fishermen and clammers sell their catch to dealers, who in turn sell to stores, dealers and others, Nadine said.
That first day, she sold Chad’s entire harvest.
That first month, she sold enough clams to get the lobster boat back in the water, and then she added “Fresh Lobsters” to the sign on the mailbox.
The Prestons were able to make a small profit by selling their lobsters at $2.99 a pound this summer, more than a dollar above what Chad would have been paid by a dealer.
“We were able to sell lobsters and clams, caught that same day, directly to the customer, at a really low price. People told their friends and their friends told their friends and people began to come. I found a hole in the system and it saved us.”
As long as they sell only what they catch and don’t process or cook it, the Prestons can sell live lobsters under Chad’s commercial fishing license.
Chad is shy and private, but he knows lobstering — he has been doing it since he was 14 years old. He provides the sweat equity for Mother Shuckers.
Nadine — who is part Martha Stewart, part Carol Burnett and a whole lot of Lucille Ball — provides the personality, or “mouth,” as she says. She is loud and bubbly and, each day, greets her customers by name. She asks about their children, inquires about their families. She gives cooking advice. She provides recipes for her grandmother’s lobster stew.
And all this summer, those customers kept coming back, she said. Almost 700 people have “liked” Mother Shuckers’ Facebook page — one of her primary advertising methods.
“I’m right in their home with Facebook” she said.
She created “Lobster Fridays,” offering special prices for the weekend and telling customers “Buy your butter on Monday because come Friday, it’s lobster.”
The lobsters began flying out the door. Some days 100 pounds of it or more. “We only sell what we catch that day,” she said. Chad brings in hundreds of pounds, however, and all his surplus catch is sold to local dealers.
“We decided to take our lives back into our own hands, and be responsible for our own income,” she said. Today she still worries about finances, but she also is quick to tally up the gains made.
“We saved our home. We saved our boat. The baby’s health is no longer threatened. Next year we’ll try harder. And the next year and the next year.”
As the thermometer begins to drop, the lobster season winds down. Mother Shuckers now only sells preordered lobster and Nadine said Chad will pull the boat out of the water on Nov. 1. On a cool morning this week, the phone rang five times in 15 minutes with orders for lobsters.
“I have to tell you, I really like the person I am today much better than the person that once had it all,” she said. “I learned that if you tell people you are hurting and you are honest, they’ll support you. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want pity. Don’t come and buy my lobster because you feel sorry for me, but if you are going to buy a lobster anyway, why not buy it right from the fisherman? Why not support a local family right in your community?
“When I look ahead, I see my future — one I didn’t think I’d have. By taking control of our lives, we established respect in the community, faithfulness from the community and trust by the community. We’re making it.”
Mother Shuckers Clam Shack can be found on Facebook or by calling 259-1254.