Fishermen-entrepreneurs share their stories

For fishermen hoping to make some extra money selling fresh seafood, there’s a simple way to find a good location.

“Go west until you find some community that is reasonably populated and ask yourself, ‘Where can I buy fresh seafood?’ If you can’t find a place you’ve got a location,” said Bernie Feeney a/k/a “The Lobster Guy.”

Feeney, a Boston lobsterman who sells lobster — and now other products — from his truck was part of the session, “How Else Can Fishermen Make a Buck? Spin-Off Businesses — From Idea to Implementation” at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum on Saturday.

This type of information couldn’t be timelier in New England, where groundfish quota cuts could end careers on the water. How bad is it? National Fisherman’s Contributing Editor Kirk Moore explains the current situation for these fleets in his story, “Ground down,” on page 24 of our April issue.

Times are tough for lobstermen too, who saw their prices drop while bait and fuel prices won’t stop rising. At the forum, Feeney and Clive Farrin, who takes passengers on lobster boat tours, talked about how they’re using side businesses to stay afloat.

He sells seafood by the roadside

Feeney lives in Whitman, Mass., which is about an hour from his home port in Boston — far enough from the coast to make seafood a hot commodity. Though he still goes out for lobster six days a week, he decided to try selling his catch to make more money after lobster prices dropped four years ago.

Massachusetts’ laws favor enterprising lobstermen, who can choose from two types of permits. One allows them to sell directly to restaurants. With the second they can sell lobsters from the back of their trucks.

Town officials helped Feeney figure out additional permits that he needed. The building inspector also gave him a tip on a prime location, and he sells from a large parking lot of an empty restaurant for sale on a state highway.

“The Lobster Guy,” who is also president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association, is there every Friday and Saturday afternoon from 3 to 7 — and customers are too. On a holiday weekend, he counted 38 people in line when he arrived and was sold out in 45 minutes. When he missed a Saturday because of a hurricane he got phone calls.

“Friday and Saturday are the best time to sell. I make more money in eight hours than my boat does in six days,” he said.

One of the first lessons Feeney learned was not to just sell what he caught. He now buys more from his dealer than he sells, unloading what he can’t sell direct and picking up a few hundred pounds of selects each week.

Another key to Feeney’s success is that he listens to his customers. After selling just lobster and scallops the first year, he expanded his product line to include stuffed quahogs, lobster bisques, chowder, crab cakes and rib-eye steaks. The idea to carry steaks came after a customer commented that he was only buying seafood for his family — if he had a good steak he’d buy it.

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” said Feeney, who now stops at a Boston butcher on his way from the dock. “I have people who come just for rib-eye steaks and scallops. They don’t buy lobsters.”

He’s also pretty savvy in marketing his catch. Soft shells are “new shells,” and you can get a deal if you buy them in bulk. “When the boat price is $3 a pound and I’m selling 13 pounds for $52, I’m doing pretty good,” he said.

Taking tourists out for lobster

Clive Farrin, a Maine lobsterman, takes tourists on the F/V Sea Swallow out of Boothbay Harbor. His tours, called “Go Lobstering,” have become so popular that they’ve rated as a top 20 activity — nationwide — on the popular website Trip Advisor.

GoLobsteringHe got started after his stern man pointed to another lobsterman who was taking out tourists and questioned why they didn’t do that as well?

“It helps with cash flow when prices are down,” said Farrin.

Farrin is limited to six passengers per one-hour trip and requires everyone under 12 to wear life jackets. He also understands that some people really want to get their hands dirty and actually catch some lobster. He said his Class 2 license covers an additional person without a permit.

Farrin has added personal injury insurance, which costs about $700-$800 a year, and a “walk and plank policy” to insure the space between the dock and the boat.

While tiny lobsters or big ones with eggs may be especially interesting to his passengers, he’s learned not to hold onto them. Instead, he encourages a quick photo session before they’re thrown over.

He’s lucky enough to have a stern man who’s great with kids, who also positions himself to create a barrier between passengers and the rope that hauls the traps.

When passengers ask what would happen if they get caught in the rope, “I tell them it depends how good you can swim if you’ve got 50 pounds tied to one leg,” said Farrin.

Learn more about Feeney and Farrin’s businesses:

In addition, Maine Sea Grant has published a fisheries and tourism fact sheet, which you can view here:

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NF Staff
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