AUGUSTA, Maine — A plan to replace the Maine Lobster Promotion Council with a new, more robust marketing entity tasked with increasing demand for Maine lobster through expanded product and brand development efforts moved ahead Thursday night.
The Maine Lobster Advisory Council voted unanimously on Thursday to approve the plan, which calls for raising $3 million over the next three years through increased fees to fund the new marketing entity, according to Annie Tselikis, education coordinator for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and co-chair of the advisory council’s marketing subcommittee.
There’s no name for the new entity yet, but the advisory council called its research and public outreach efforts, which began in June, Project Maine Lobster.
The council’s vote is not the end of the process. The Department of Marine Resources, or DMR, is now tasked with drafting legislation that would create the new entity and include language about the increase in fees on lobster harvesters, dealers and processors to pay for it.
“It’s definitely not a done deal by any means,” Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy at the DMR, told the Bangor Daily News. “It’s just an endorsement to keep that conversation going forward.”
Gilbert said she plans to have the draft legislation prepared for the advisory council’s next meeting, which is not scheduled yet but likely will be next month. The council has been meeting almost monthly, Tselikis said, given its work on the marketing plan and the glut of product in July that led to the lowest boat price — the price lobstermen get for their catch — in 30 years.
What fees will be increased to pay for the new marketing efforts and by how much has not been decided, Gilbert said. She plans to include several options in the piece of draft legislation, which the advisory council will review and use to solicit more industry feedback. “DMR will eventually have to pinpoint definitive fees,” Tselikis said. “But everything is still up for discussion now.”
The plan is to raise $1 million the first year and up to $3 million in the next three years through the new fees, Gilbert said. However, the legislation likely will include a provision to allow fees to be tweaked after the fact to accommodate any unanticipated reaction within the industry to the changes, Gilbert said.
“It’s somewhat of a moving target,” she said. “You just don’t know how people will react when you put those fees in place.”
The current Maine Lobster Promotion Council, which also was created by legislation, has a marketing budget of $400,000, Tselikis said.
The difference between a $400,000 budget and a $3 million budget won’t go toward higher overhead; it will go toward promoting and developing the Maine lobster brand in an effort to increase demand and, therefore, the boat price, which is between $2 and $2.50 a pound, she said.
“We’re looking to keep it bare bones,” Tselikis said. “The idea is to keep a really small staff and throw a lot of money at promotions, brand development and product development.”
Elevating the Maine lobster brand will involve research and development and funding studies on the health and nutrition of the product.
The new marketing plan was developed by John Sauve, president of the Food and Wellness Group and former director of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America. The advisory council hired Sauve because of his past successes and hopes he can do for Maine lobster what he did for Maine blueberries, such as funding nutrition studies that elevated blueberries from a commodity to superfruit status.
The legislation to increase fees and create the new marketing entity won’t be in front of legislators until the first three months of next year, which means “we wouldn’t be looking at a new council until the 2013-2014 fishing season,” Tselikis said.
But that’s OK with her. She said the plan was never to come up with a short-term solution to the industry’s current plight. In fact, the process of creating the new marketing entity began before this summer’s plummet in lobster prices.
“This is really a long-term investment in developing the Maine lobster brand and working on gaining new market share and developing new market opportunities,” Tselikis said.
Though, she added, the current situation has created a “sense of urgency to get a new marketing entity in place that could bring the product forward into the 21st century.”