One thing that helped save the day for Maine’s iconic industry is that many people went from eating lobster at restaurants to boiling the water themselves at home, thanks to industrywide efforts.
Thousands of workers are employed in the wholesale supply chain, which a 2018 Colby College report says pumps about $1 billion into the Maine economy. In 2019, lobster accounted for 73 percent of all commercial landings in Maine by value. And all that lobster needs to find a home — even in a pandemic.
Kristan Porter, a commercial lobsterman from Cutler and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, says one other year in his memory compares to 2020: “In 2012 we had a market glut when the lobsters struck early, and processors weren’t ready for them. It resulted in a decreased price that took years to recover from.”
Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative says two years compare: “The financial crash of 2008 and the events of 9/11 were both disruptive… and both created additional challenges because they hit during Maine lobster’s high season.”
While covid-19 devastated food service, travel and shipping globally, the timing of the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, says LaCroix, was a small consolation in that it “allowed industry members to prepare before the season got underway, and to learn from other food processing facilities.” Although then-President Trump’s trade war was finally settled in 2020, and China ended up purchasing over $95 million in lobsters from the U.S. in 2020, it was not a smooth ride.
Early on, uncertainty was palpable.
“I don’t set gear typically until early May,” says Porter. “But I was later this year, as were others, waiting to see what the market was going to be.” When fishermen finally started hauling, prices were depressed by 20-30 percent from 2019.
Ernie Burgess, a 77-year-old lobsterman from Chebeague Island, also started later, but eventually sold to a local co-op.
“Many of my lobsters went to take-out seasonal seafood restaurants, some to the local market, and to processors.” And as more tourists showed up in Maine, sales picked up at seafood shacks and restaurants. And, adds Burgess, “at the end, we started catching lobsters and were doing fairly good.”
In spring, some harvesters also relied on direct-to-consumer sales (which were in the $5-$6 per pounds range) to cover expenses and avoid overloading a fragile supply chain. While ex-vessel prices in the spring to early summer were down in most locations, they eventually started to rebound. By the end of the season, they were on par with, or up, from last year.
“I was actually surprised that we got through the season without major issues,” adds Porter. “I feared a decrease in price that could take years to recover (just like in 2012) which could have resulted in guys losing their businesses, both fishermen and shoreside infrastructure.”
Building diversity into the markets has become essential.
“In the past,” says Porter, “we were too dependent on a few places for our product to go in the summer, like Canadian processors.”
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative “pivoted to increasing demand among home cooks and making sure that we provided the tools and inspiration to make Maine lobster approachable,” says LaCroix. In 2020, the group embarked on new efforts, including a social media and ad-driven promotional program with Big Y Foods, a Massachusetts-based grocer with 25 stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The campaign resulted in a 79 percent increase in lobster store sales during the month-long promotional period, according to the collaborative.
In the end, lobster was better positioned to shift to grocery markets than other industries, like oysters, where there is a larger learning curve for home cooks, or species with existing market volatility like scup. “Home cooks quickly realized that Maine lobster is easy to source,” says LaCroix, “and that it is available in product forms like cooked meat and tails that make preparation a breeze.”
While the next challenge is always right around the corner, “it is important to know that the lobster industry did get through 2020,” says Porter. “There will be fishermen that were hurt more than others,” says Porter, “such as those who fish inside exclusively and didn’t see the increase in price before their season was over.” And not everyone in the industry was impacted equally.
“My boat is paid for, my house is paid for. I don’t need a new pickup truck every year. [I] don’t have tremendous expenses, compared to the younger guys just starting out — they still have to buy boats and traps,” says Burgess. “It’s so expensive to get into. So, maybe it’s harder on younger people.”
Despite challenges, northeast seaweed markets — which have shifted from wild to farmed in recent years — held steady in 2020. Farmed seaweed harvested in Maine waters grew from 54,000 pounds in 2018 to 280,000 pounds in 2019, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. A recent Island Institute report indicates that the total farmed seaweed harvested in Maine could reach 3.06 million pounds by 2035.
But for those in Maine holding aquaculture leases and LPAs (limited-purpose aquaculture leases) that include provisions for raising kelp species (including skinny kelp, horsetail kelp, hollow-stemmed or oarweed kelp, sugar kelp, winged kelp, dulse, nori/laver, and sea lettuce), 2020 was wild.
“It was a trying year for sure,” says Bri Warner CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms in Saco, Maine — which until April 2020, focused on foodservice and the fast-casual industry. “Almost all of those customers dropped out overnight, just as we were heading into harvest season where our farmers had grown hundreds of thousands of pounds of kelp that we were under obligation to buy — and we did.”
Seaweed companies responded to closures by looking for new national markets for their small-scale, regional retail products. Atlantic Sea Farms had already built retail markets in New England with Whole Foods and Wegmans supermarkets and in 2020, expanded their retail products to local and national chains nationwide.
“I am so, so proud of our partner farmers and team for the way their positive and optimistic outlook made it possible for us to continue to thrive,” says Warner. In 2019, her company had a record-breaking harvest of 440,000 pounds, and this year is aiming for 850,000 pounds.
Another positive were the new collaborations between seaweed aquaculture and other fisheries. Atlantic Sea Farms partnered with Bangs Island Oysters to purchase seaweed when shellfish sales plummeted.
“Our partnerships are mostly with lobster fishermen,” adds Warner, “and we were so glad this year to have seen our partner farmers absorb some of the shock of the volatility of the lobster industry through their kelp farming income. These industries are entirely complimentary (different seasons, same basic equipment) and we are excited to show that kelp farming is a viable supplemental income source.”
On the whole, a rough 2020 revealed how grocery buyers — and shoppers — are excited about eating fresh, domestic seaweed. (Currently, around 90 percent of seaweed in the United States is imported.) “We wouldn’t have learned this quite as effectively if we weren’t forced to make pretty dramatic strategic changes in our sales strategy,” says Warner. Capitalizing on the multifaceted uses of seaweed proved to be a good strategy.
“The uses for seaweed go beyond food products,” says Afton Hupper, outreach and development specialist at the Maine Aquaculture Association. “Seaweed can play a huge role in self-care, which is becoming a top priority for people as they continue to spend time at home in 2021 and are looking for ways to boost their overall health and wellness.”
“What is difficult for a lot of my colleagues in seafood, however,” adds Warner, “is that there aren’t a lot of opportunities for unbranded, seafood products to pivot to a retail market — especially as the vast majority of seafood in the U.S. is consumed in restaurants.” Hupper says she is encouraged by a recent Nielsen report indicating retail seafood sales are up 35 percent since before the start of the pandemic. “Today, it’s easier than ever before to bring high-quality dried, frozen, and even fermented sea vegetable products to your home.”
Warner agrees. “People and companies throughout our food system have had to adapt in incredibly innovative ways — and not everyone will still be standing when it is all over,” she says. “But I hope that some of the innovation that was found during these incredibly difficult times continues to expand and lift all boats in the long term.”