A scallop diver cuts out the innards of a scallop on a boat in Southwest Harbor in this 2017 file photo. A new state marketing initiative aimed at boosting online direct-to-consumer sales of Maine seafood is the latest such effort to counteract the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the volatility of overseas trade agreements. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Though 2020 will be remembered for many things, it also may be remembered as the year when online, direct-to-consumer sales of Maine seafood took off.

In a year that saw continued wrangling over foreign trade agreements — which hampered overseas sales of Maine lobster, the state’s dominant seafood product — and a severe drop in restaurant sales due to precautions aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, many seafood harvesters and producers have sought to connect directly with consumers to stay afloat.

A new marketing initiative launched this month by the state — created with $1 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds — is the latest effort geared toward making it easier for consumers to buy Maine seafood directly from distributors and retailers. A website borne of that initiative, SeafoodfromMaine.com, follows suit with other sites such as Localcatch.org and Lukeslobster.com that aim to connect consumers and sellers directly online, or to guide consumers to retailers that sell locally sourced seafood.

The new state marketing program does not overlap with efforts by the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, which has been promoting Maine lobster for years. It instead focuses on other types of seafood harvested or grown in Maine — scallops, oysters, groundfish, crab, salmon, mussels, clams and seaweed. The website, which also has recipes on how to make seafood dishes, “will help consumers learn about, find, and prepare Maine Seafood in their own kitchens,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The site also will have blog posts by food writers about Maine seafood, and will highlight the sustainable harvesting and cultivation practices prevalent in the state, Keliher said.

Though restaurant sales have plummeted in the pandemic’s wake, grocery stores have had banner years and eateries that have been able to pivot substantially to takeout or delivery service have fared better than others. As more people have had to eat at home, one market research study indicates that retail sales of seafood have increased 35 percent since 2019, state officials said.

Also, “buy local” has become a more common refrain in Maine and elsewhere as part of a strategy to dilute the pandemic’s economic impact. Many producers and dealers in Maine’s seafood industry in recent years have sought to expand their direct-to-consumer sales, hoping to boost Maine seafood’s reputation and to keep more of the profits generated from their products, but the pandemic has put a sharper point on boosting home seafood consumption.

Even prior to the pandemic, recent years have produced some discomfort for the state’s $485 million lobster fishery, as trade disputes with Europe and China disrupted overseas markets for Maine’s signature seafood export.

Those disputes, prompted by tough trade stances from the Trump administration, still were simmering early this year when the pandemic hit. With Joe Biden’s election as president, many in the industry hope overseas seafood markets will be more consistently open to Maine seafood sales in the coming years but, as the pandemic has shown, international trade disruptions can be hard to predict.

“Like producers across the globe, Maine’s seafood industry continues to face the challenge of rapidly changing markets,” Keliher said.

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....