‘Maine isn’t the backdoor anymore’: Businesses look north for new trade opportunities

Posted May 15, 2014, at 3:28 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — As lobsters go, so goes Maine’s economy. That is, the species is among those moving up the coast and farther into the North Atlantic, where state trade officials hope Maine companies will find new opportunities as well.

The region was the focus of this year’s International Trade Day gathering Thursday at the Cross Insurance Center, where representatives from industries ranging from wood pellets to high-tech composites spoke about the trade potential to the north.

This year’s trade mission from Maine, led by the Maine International Trade Center, will take business leaders in June to Iceland and London to explore business opportunities. After, the director of the newly formed Maine North Atlantic Development Office, Dana Eidsness, plans to stop in Greenland for an exploratory visit to learn about opportunities in the vast but sparsely populated island country.

“It’s an enormous country with 57,000 residents,” Eidsness said, noting that melting ice is exposing more of the country’s resources and attracting more foreign investment. “I think Maine is in a good position to take advantage of that.”

That’s because the federal government also is developing trade and military strategies for the Arctic Ocean. That plan, released in January, signals a perceived need for federal officials to better understand shipping channels and defense strategy for the changing region. Eidsness said that development of strategy in that region stands to benefit Maine if, for instance, Maine companies can provide supplies for a military presence.

While the federal government eyes North Atlantic and Arctic trade, commerce across those waters to Maine is already rising because of the introduction of Icelandic shipper Eimskip into the International Marine Terminal in Portland.

In 2013, when the service arrived, trade with Iceland surged to $1.95 million, according to figures from the Maine International Trade Center, but it also brought less measurable benefits to Maine companies.

Martin Grimnes, president of the Brunswick-based Harbor Technologies, said his company sealed a deal early last year to deliver composite parts for a bridge to Mandal, Norway. That was before the company had figured out how it would get the bridge components to Norway. But it had a much easier answer when Eimskip arrived.

“They’re big enough to get you there competitively but also small enough to accommodate any special requirements,” said Grimnes after participating in a panel discussion Thursday.

He said that other options, likely shipping through larger ports such as Philadelphia or New York, would take about 10 days of transport by road with escort vehicles to arrive a week before the actual shipment date. It would be more than two weeks after the composite parts pass back by the Maine coast on the way to the final destination.

Development of Portland’s waterfront continues, with the recent closing on property that will be used to bring a rail connection into the trade port. John Henshaw, director of the Maine Port Authority, said the port is still developing its export customers, as Eimskip arrived with an initial focus on imports from its existing customers in northern Europe and elsewhere on the North Atlantic.

Henshaw said the focus at the port is to accommodate agricultural and processed seafood exports in addition to products related to the paper and pulp industry. Eventually, he said, the goal is to process imported seafood in Maine, adding value before shipping it back out to other destinations.

And the range of those destinations is increasing with the melting of the polar ice caps, which open new shipping routes to Asia through the Arctic Ocean.

Henshaw said he doesn’t expect increased use of the port in Portland to reduce activity in the state’s other major ports in Eastport and Searsport because those more northeasterly locations don’t often deal with container shipments and are geared toward energy industries.

“The opportunity in Portland is distinct from our other ports that don’t handle containers,” Henshaw said.

Beyond imports and exports, Patrick Binns, Canadian consul general for New England, said that continued mining for minerals and other resources in the northern parts of Canada also is raising demand for supplies and workers, where he said Maine could help play a role.

That could include business such as Pittsfield-based Cianbro, which recently built and shipped 22 modular buildings to a Canadian nickel mining project. As those efforts move ahead, Binns said environmental impact is a growing concern as well.

“The North is one of the last frontiers, so we have to be environmentally responsible and make sure we have the ability to do it right,” Binns said.

With cod and other species shifting from the Gulf of Maine to more remote North Atlantic waters such as Baffin Bay, University of New England marine science professor Barry Costa-Pierce said those environmental concerns over fisheries management provide a unique opportunity for researchers to provide guidance on proven management practices. And University of New England, he said, is hoping to build its expertise in the trend that he said changes Maine’s position in the global economy.

“Maine isn’t the backdoor anymore, it’s the front door to a new economy in the North Atlantic,” he said.

 

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