GOULDSBORO, Maine — The number of local seafood processing jobs in the local village of Prospect Harbor has swung back and forth between dozens and none over the past few years, but local residents and officials are hoping the latest swing of the pendulum will stay.
Maine Fair Trade Lobster, the latest owner and operator of the former Stinson Seafood plant, has hired 90 people and last week geared up its new lobster processing line in the plant for a trial run. The company, a joint partnership between East Coast Seafood and Garbo Lobster, has indicated it plans to begin regular operations as the busy summer season for Maine’s lobster fishery gets under way.
Garbo, based in Groton, Conn., is a relatively large-scale dealer of live lobster with lobster-buying stations in Maine and Canada. East Coast Seafood, based in Lynn, Mass., already is in the lobster processing business through its Paturel International division and is considered a major global distributor of lobster.
Maine Fair Trade Lobster officials have not said publicly what kind of lobster products they expect to produce in Gouldsboro, but they presumably could be similar to what Paturel makes at Deer Island. Those products include raw lobster tails, frozen whole cooked lobsters, cocktail lobster claws, vacuum-sealed picked lobster meat, blanched claws and arms in-the-shell, and something called “popsicle lobsters,” which are cooked and frozen whole lobsters vacuum-sealed in bags with saltwater brine.
Approximately 75 people worked at the lobster processing facility in the summer of 2011 when it was owned and operated by Chelsea, Mass.-based Live Lobster, which subsequently lost the property through foreclosure. Before that, when it was a sardine cannery, 128 people were employed at the plant at the time Bumble Bee Foods shut it down in April 2010.
Last September, East Coast Seafood and Garbo Lobster teamed up to buy the Gouldsboro plant at a foreclosure auction for $900,000. Since then it has partially renovated the plant, giving it a larger production capacity than it had under Live Lobster, and has set up a supply and distribution network for the facility.
In a prepared statement released Monday, Maine Fair Trade Lobster officials indicated that redevelopment of the cavernous 100,000 square-foot building will continue through the summer and that the company hopes to employ 300 people by the summer of 2016.
Michael Tourkistas, president and CEO of East Coast Seafood, said in the statement that cooperation throughout the seafood supply chain — from fishermen to dealers and eventually to retailers and restaurants — will be key to making the venture a success.
“Every lobster that is hauled out of the ocean and every employee that helps bring the lobster to market — it’s a journey that no one industry sector can make alone,” Tourkistas said.
Attempts this week to interview Maine Fair Trade Lobster officials directly about the opening were unsuccessful. Last week, Bill Darling, the plant manager, directed questions about the operation to Christina Ferranti-Clift, marketing director for East Coast Seafood. Ferranti-Clift said Friday that she could not provide additional information about Maine Fair Trade Lobster’s operations in Gouldsboro and that other company officials were unavailable for interviews.
Dana Rice, a local selectman and lobster dealer, said last week that the re-opening of the plant, and the restoration of dozens of local seafood processing jobs, is a welcome development in Gouldsboro.
“It’s great. It’s wonderful,” said Rice, who has been assisting the firm in getting the plant ready. “There’s been a lot of anticipation and everyone feels good about it.”
Rice, who was at the plant during its trial run on June 14, made his comments amid tangible signs of new life at the plant. Dozens of car and trucks were parked outside the plant for the first time in over a year as new employees in hair nets and boots walked among the hallways and offices.
Sherrie White, manager of Mc’s Marketplace in the neighboring village of Birch Harbor, said that people who work at the store are “very excited” about the lobster plant gearing up. Stinsons’ employees regularly came to the market for food and beverages, she said, and the hope is that Maine Fair Trade Lobster employees will, too.
“We’re getting a few right now,” she said. “We’re hoping when they get up and going, we’ll get more people in here.”
White added that the market got a lot of business from people who stayed at the Ocean Wood Campground before the campground closed in 2009. If Lyme Timber builds a new campground on the Schoodic Peninsula, as the timber management firm has said it plans to do, that also would bode well for the market and other local businesses, she said.
“We’re very excited for all the stuff that is coming,” White said.
For more than a century, the site on Clark Point where the seafood processing plant is located was home to a sardine cannery, employing generations of local residents who processed and canned small fish, most recently under the Beach Cliff label. That legacy came to an end in 2010 when Bumble Bee Foods, which had acquired the plant in 2004, shut the plant down and laid off the 128 people who worked there. It was the last remaining sardine cannery in the country.
In its wake, Chelsea, Mass.-based Live Lobster purchased the property from Bumble Bee and set out to break into the lobster processing industry. Privately, local officials had concerns about the financial standing of the company, which up to that point had operated exclusively as a live lobster dealer, but still the deal went through. With the help of grants and loans, which town officials were reluctant to endorse, the firm made renovations and began processing lobster in the old seafood plant.
Live Lobster’s tenure in Gouldsboro was short-lived however. The company’s cash-flow problems received public attention in December 2011 when fishermen complained that checks they received from Live Lobster were bouncing. The company made good on the funds, but its money troubles resurfaced a few months later when its accounts were frozen and two lawsuits were filed against it, one by a former Live Lobster official and another by its chief lender, TD Bank.
Live Lobster was forced to suspend its operations, putting dozens of people out of work, and its assets were seized by TD Bank. Live Lobster employed up to 80 people in Maine, where it also had lobster-buying stations in Phippsburg, Rockland, Spruce Head and Stonington.