Maine lobster is special. People who live or vacation in Maine know that the signature crustaceans pulled from waters off the state’s coast are the tastiest in the world. With the recent certification by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council, the state can now claim that Maine’s lobster fishery also ranks among the world’s best in terms of sustainability, ecosystem protection and labeling.
The council’s certification, which comes after five years of rigorous review, provides new impetus to expand and intensify efforts to market Maine lobster globally. Amid fake fish scandals that make seafood lovers wonder if they’re really being served what they ordered, the mixture of great taste, reliable labeling and an environmentally responsible fishery should make Maine lobster an easy sell to seafood restaurants and consumers everywhere.
But first they have to know what sets Maine lobster apart from lesser ocean dwellers. Legislation proposed by Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, and supported by the Maine Department of Marine Resources after almost a year of meetings on the topic, provides a means to do a better job of touting the mouthwatering delights of Maine lobsters to the global marketplace.
Kruger’s bill, LD 486, would incrementally increase licensing surcharges in the state’s lobster industry so that by 2016 a reorganized Maine Lobster Promotion Council would have $3 million a year to spend on national and international lobster promotion efforts.
That’s almost 10 times the current budget of roughly $350,000, which fishermen, processors and marketers agree is inadequate for a business sector that produced a catch worth $339 million and reportedly contributed $1 billion to the state’s economy in 2012. But it’s also less than one-seventh of the $21.5 million that the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute budgeted for 2013.
Alaska’s budget for promoting its seafood includes $10.56 million from the state’s seafood producers and $7.8 million from state government, complemented by federal grants and other funding sources. The state’s seafood marketing program operates in 21 countries.
Maine can’t afford that kind of investment, but the state’s lobster fishermen and processors need more tools to compete with Alaskan salmon and other highly promoted seafood products for a fair share of the global marketplace.
Through the fee increases proposed in Kruger’s bill, processors and harvesters would share the added cost of those marketing tools. The reorganization of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council proposed in LD 486 would increase council membership to 13, including harvesters, wholesalers and two new members, preferably with marketing expertise. It also would add Maine’s economic and community development commissioner to the council, making available that department’s resources to market Maine lobster products to the world.
Building “generic demand for Maine lobster” in new markets, as Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, testified during a March 6 public hearing on Kruger’s bill, must be a priority for the revamped council. The council also should investigate how best to increase the number of value-added lobster products, which could include lobster mac and cheese or frozen lobster tails, as part of its mission to “promote the quality and full utilization of the product.”
In addition to making Maine more competitive with other states and countries promoting their seafood, a stepped-up lobster marketing program represents the healthiest way to address the growing problem of low per-pound prices caused by record catches in recent years.
The problem of low prices boils down to excess supply, and, with catch-volume projections remaining high, the best way to correct that problem would be to increase demand. As lobster landings continue to climb, somehow more customers must be found. The enhanced image that comes with Marine Stewardship Council certification makes this an opportune time to try to increase demand for Maine lobsters through the collaborative investment laid out in Kruger’s bill.