EASTPORT, Maine — Maine and its Canadian neighbors have a tightly linked and sometimes confrontational relationship when it comes to the buying and selling of lobsters. One Eastport entrepreneur decided to take what he learned from his Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, counterpart and construct a state-of-the-art onshore lobster pound based on a design concept fully implemented throughout the Canadian Maritimes.
David Pottle is a born businessman who was raised on the water. According to his father, Basil Pottle, “When he was in eighth grade he would go to school all week and then fish with his brother on the weekends, making more money than his teachers.”
For the past 25 years, David Pottle has gained a reputation as a highly competent fisherman, skilled owner of a construction company and a responsible lobster dealer. Starting with two small storage tanks at his Perry home, he began buying from his fellow lobstermen. He then sold in volume to his distributor, the Milbridge facility of Inland Seafood, a food corporation based in Atlanta.
During the past seven years, he watched his home-based business grow to nine tanks with a capacity to hold 9,000 pounds of lobster.
“People hear by word of mouth [about your reputation] and then want to sell to you,” he says.
Now Pottle is preparing to open a new lobster pound in Eastport this winter that increases his capacity by more than tenfold. Unlike most lobster pounds in the area, Pottle’s new operation is a land-based design that integrates refrigeration to keep a lobster fresh and healthy for up to three months from the time it is caught.
Pottle first became interested in land-based lobster pounds when he visited one owned and operated by Wade Nickerson at SeaKist Lobster in Nova Scotia. The idea stuck with him, and as his business grew, he thought a land-based operation was the best opportunity to expand.
Modeled after the Nickerson plant, Pottle’s 6,000-square-foot Lighthouse Lobster and Bait facility is located on the south end of Moose Island in Eastport. The three-acre property was acquired from the city in May 2010 with a bid of $43,000.
“It is not often that a property so ideally situated becomes available. I had an idea and I went at it,” he says. Pottle used his own money to purchase the property first, then sought loans to combine with his own funds to secure the $1.2 million he needed to set up the business.
Before construction could begin on the former Consea factory site at Prince Cove, the dilapidated building — not used since the 1960s — had to be demolished. Pottle tapped consultants provided by the Washington County Council of Governments, which received $400,000 in Brownfield grant money in 2009, to lay out the process for proper cleanup of paint and asbestos, then did the remediation work himself.
“I paid for it and DEP came and approved my work,” he says of the necessary site preparation. Work to stabilize the shorefront property is in the permitting process.
Using expertise and equipment from his own construction business, Pottle has been able to keep costs down. He has also relied on a small crew that includes his father. Once the plant is fully operational, he intends to employ up to six people, full time. In 2014, he plans to build a pier for shorefront docking capability.
For now, though, he is working at a pace and budget that does not overextend his ability to make payments.
“My boat payments are more than those for this building,” Pottle says, adding he is confident that he will be profitable in the first year of operation.
Land-based lobster pound design
The design and operation of Pottle’s land-based lobster pound is different in a number of ways than the traditional outdoor holding facilities. Seawater is filtered and pumped onshore into two large tanks, one with a capacity of 150,000 gallons and the other 40,000 gallons. The tanks are aerated and water is cooled and kept at a constant temperature.
“When the temperature is brought down, the lobsters hibernate,” says Pottle.
The facility holds only hard-shell, high-protein, high-blood-count lobsters that do not require feeding during storage. The soft-shell lobsters that are caught in large quantities in Maine during the summer will not be kept in this facility, since they are more active and require feeding, says Pottle. Some outdoor pounds hold soft-shell lobsters, but incur additional costs to feed them if they’re held for any length of time.
At full capacity, Pottle’s pound can hold 125,000 pounds of lobster. Each lobster will be housed in individually divided sections of trays, referred to as “condos,” that will be stacked and submerged in nine feet of very cold water.
Roswell Sears of Barrington Passage, Nova Scotia, has been working in the business of refrigerated lobster storage since 1988 and is a consultant to Pottle’s project, which he describes as “top notch.”
“Keeping the lobster at a constant temperature is the big thing, 36 degrees is ideal” explains Sears. The lobsters can be kept for up to three months without any degradation of quality.
Although there are very few similar pounds in the United States, they are common throughout the Canadian Maritimes.
“There are a fair number, ranging in capacity from 10,000 to 1 million pounds,” says Sears, adding “every coastal community in southwest Nova Scotia from Digby to Shelburne has one.”
Marketing and the Canadian connection
Inland Seafood will be the sole marketer and distributor for Lighthouse Lobster and Bait, says Pottle. Inland already buys from a number of lobster pounds in the Canadian Maritimes. Billy Phinney, manager of Inland’s Milbridge facility, says the proximity of Pottle’s pound is an asset.
“There are advantages to having access at any time without having to cross the border,” he says.
Inland Seafood will also be leasing capacity at the plant. “This is an excellent location on cool, deep water that will be ideal for bringing lobster in from the nearby Canadian islands of Campobello and Deer Island,” he says.
Bringing more industry to Maine
Seasons play big in the lobster industry along Down East Maine. According to Phinney, during the winter, 80 percent to 90 percent of lobsters sold in the states come from Canada; in the summer, most — up to 80 percent — of lobsters harvested in Maine are shipped to Canada for processing. Lobsters landed during the summer are usually soft shell and do not ship well to the live market. For that reason, much of the processed lobster product ends up coming back through the States.
The industry gained international attention this summer when Canadian processing plants were flooded with low-priced Maine lobsters and New Brunswick lobstermen formed blockades to shut the plants down. Canadian lobstermen feared they would not get a fair price for their lobster once their own season opened. After a week or two of heated protests and negotiations, the situation was finally resolved.
For some, the summer dispute was the first time the interdependent relationship between the two countries’ lobster industries was recognized. For Pottle, it’s as obvious as simply looking out his office window.
The front office of Lighthouse Lobster and Bait looks out over Friar Roads, which straddles the international border between Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays.
“This is so close to where we fish” says Pottle, referring to the lobster grounds out beyond Lubec and Quoddy Head toward Grand Manan where lobstermen from both countries work the “grey zone” (the international waters that include Machias Seal Island are claimed by both countries). Although they have distinct regulations and harvest seasons, lobstermen from each country sometimes work side by side.
Pottle knows firsthand as he builds his new facility that lobster fishermen in the U.S. and Canada need each other.
“Being able to buy lobsters from Canada at different times of year will be important for my success,” he says.
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