Milissa LaLonde, a parishioner at St. Francis by the Sea in Blue Hill, gestures with another church member as he gets out of his car Friday at the church to pick up his weekly lobster order. LaLonde, who runs the program, had customers place their checks in the aluminum pot. The church is buying lobster in bulk each week from an area lobsterman in order to help boost the local economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Bill Trotter | BDN

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BLUE HILL, Maine — In an effort to help support the local economy during the global COVID-19 pandemic, a local church has organized a weekly bulk purchase from a local lobsterman.

The program, now entering its fifth week at St. Francis by the Sea, is part of a broader movement among Mainers to support local businesses while measures aimed at preventing the spread of the disease have forced many retailers to shut down for several weeks, with many facing several more weeks of closure. The program also reflects efforts by local food and beverage producers to stay in business by delivering their product directly to customers.

On Thursday dozens of members of St. Francis drove into the church parking lot on Hinckley Ridge Road to pick up their order, paying $6 for each lobster — below normal retail prices — all of which goes directly to the fisherman who caught them.

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Church officials have not identified the fisherman supplying the program, saying he does not want the attention, but they have said he has a family and fishes far offshore. The $1,632 he is getting this week from church members is helping to pay the costs of operating his boat, maintaining his equipment, and to support his family.

“He’s pretty shy,” the Rev. Brent Was, rector of the church, said Monday.

Was, who has a background in local food systems and community supported agriculture, said he brought up the idea last month with church’s members. They in turn contacted the fisherman, who said he’d be happy to sell them some of his catch.

“This was a way we could [support local food producers] quite easily,” Was said. “Agriculture is such a vibrant part of the community here.”

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Milissa LaLonde, a member of the church, said Wednesday that for years St. Francis staged an annual fair at which donated household goods were sold, with all the proceeds going to a local community organization. The church decided the fair last August would be the last one — “it became too much work for a bunch of old people,” she said — and so the lobster-buying program, which she helps to run, now is helping the church fulfill that part of its mission.

“We’ve been looking to replace the community service part” of the defunct fair, LaLonde said.

For several years, fishing industry advocates have encouraged direct-to-consumer sales as a way to help ensure that fishermen can sell what they catch and get a decent price for it, even if their harvests and sales volumes are fairly small.

Localcatch.org, an online network that connects commercial fishermen directly with consumers, was co-founded in 2011 by Joshua Stoll, an assistant professor of marine policy at University of Maine, as a way to boost the viability of small-scale fisheries throughout North America.

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Stoll said Friday that since mid-March, there has been a 447 percent surge in traffic to the network’s website, where an interactive map provides locations and contact information for fishermen and regional seafood marketing groups who have registered with the network.

“The pandemic seems to have raised our collective consciousness about a lot of things, including where we get our food,” Stoll said. “I don’t know if interest in local seafood will stick, but in times of disruption when everyone’s routines change, people are trying a lot of new things and these ‘experiments’ may become habits. That could be transformative.”

In Maine, there has been an increase in recent years in smaller retailers and specialized distributors — Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine, Luke’s Lobster, and Downeast Dayboat among them — that focus on and emphasize the quality of Maine seafood in hopes of solidifying a niche market in which they can get higher prices for their products.

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Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said that since COVID-19 pandemic has spread to Maine and disrupted the availability of many foods, and the way that people buy it, there has been a much higher interest in buying from Maine fishermen and specialty seafood retailers. Since early March, the association has gotten more inquiries about where to buy Maine seafood than it has in the prior eight years, he said.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in local demand for Maine seafood,” he said.

It’s not just a matter of supporting local fishermen, Martens said. In times of disruption, when travel or trade is restricted, fish and other marine organisms harvested in the Gulf of Maine generally are more readily available to Mainers than food shipped from elsewhere.

He said many people also are more willing to take the time to prepare food, instead of just buying a frozen dinner and heating it in the oven, because they are home all day and have time on their hands. The association’s blog, which includes some recipes on how to prepare seafood, is getting more than 10 times as many readers than it did before the pandemic arrived in Maine, he said.

“We’ve got people ordering whole fish [from association members] and learning how to fillet them,” Martens said.

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It has been helpful that the volume of seafood harvested in Maine this time of year typically is fairly low, which has helped lessen the impact of the plunge in global trade, Martens added.

Lobsters, which make up 47 percent of the annual statewide marine harvest by volume and 73 percent of its value, are harvested in much greater quantities each year from July through November than in the spring. Fisheries for baby eels, which almost exclusively are shipped overseas, and scallops — both of which take place in winter and/or spring — have been hurt more significantly by the ongoing pandemic and are fetching lower prices than in recent years, Martens said. Together, Maine’s eel and scallops harvests comprise less than 5 percent of annual statewide commercial fishing value of nearly $674 million.

Given the volume of fish or other marine species that are harvested in Maine each year, Martens said, direct-to-consumer sales in Maine might be helpful for fishermen who deal in small volumes, or may buoy incomes in the short term, but they are not a substitute for a nationwide or global distribution network. If overseas trade and domestic restaurants continue to stay shuttered or significantly restricted into the summer, weekly parking-lot sales won’t provide much help to Maine’s fishing industry.

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Local demand can’t absorb 100 million pounds of lobster, or 3 million pounds of groundfish, Martens said.

Even in times when trade restrictions cause international exports of Maine seafood to drop, there is opportunity to boost demand, he said. Americans on average each eat only 15 pounds of seafood every year, he said — far less than the annual averages of more than 100 pounds of chicken, more than 80 pounds of beef, and more than 60 pounds of pork, according to USDA statistics.

“People should be demanding [Maine] seafood,” Martens said. “There’s a lot of room for seafood consumption to grow in the U.S.”

In the meantime, increased efforts to buy local are helping to keep at least some Maine fishermen afloat, and with luck those efforts won’t fall off after the pandemic passes, he said.

“It’s been revealing,” Martens said of the pandemic’s impact. “Hopefully we can learn from this and build off it.”

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Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....