Maine lobster industry prepares for big season with dual focus on domestic, foreign markets
Two chief marketers of Maine lobsters are preparing for a busy summer, as expectations are high that they’ll have lots of product to sell once the main fishing season gets underway, even if the predictions of an extremely early start to the season prove true.
Jeffrey Bennett, senior trade specialist with the Maine International Trade Center, and Matt Jacobson, the executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said the industry has been buoyed by growing export numbers and a recent survey showing restaurants are charging an average of USD 6.22 per lobster when its provenance is identified as Maine on menus, a phenomenon that was the recent subject of a Portland Press Herald article.
Bennett and Jacobson remain positive even in the face of a Gulf of Maine Research Institute prediction of an “extremely early” start to the season, which is now expected to get underway in June rather than July due to a warmer-than-usual winter in New England. They said the industry is much more prepared for an early season than it was in 2012, when an early glut of lobsters created turmoil in the industry, overwhelming processors and cratering prices.
Since 2012, however, Maine lobstermen (there are about 5,500 of them) have had enormous success over the, annually landing record catches. Last year, they caught about 124 million pounds of lobster, worth about USD 495 million (EUR 441.2 million), an all-time high. Bennett said the consensus of the industry and scientific experts is that the trend of higher catch volumes will continue this season.
“There’s a recognition now that we’ve had the catch for a while that we will continue to have the catch,” Bennett said.
Growing markets abroad
Due to the nature of their jobs, Bennett and Jacobson are focused on different ends of the market, with Bennett focusing on growing Maine’s lobster exports and Jacobson concentrating on the much larger domestic market. Their joint efforts appear to be paying off, with data showing rising sales both across the United States and abroad.
In 2010, Maine sold about USD 100,000 (EUR 89,000) worth of lobsters to China. Just five years later, the total reached almost USD 20 million (EUR 17.8 million) in 2015. The beginning of this year has the upward trend continuing, following a huge sales boost during the Chinese New Year holiday, celebrated on 8 February, during which time Maine lobsters were selling for more than USD 40 (EUR 35.61) per pound in China, according to a recent Washington Post article.
“The Chinese New Year kicked things off in a big way for us – exports to China are up 55 percent for the first three months of the year. That’s even more impressive given the dollar is still really strong overseas, which is historically not the greatest thing for exports,” Bennett said. “It’s just one more encouraging sign that demand for Maine lobsters is continuing to grow as it becomes a more recognizable brand around the world.”
Concerns that Maine lobsters were gaining notoriety as “Boston lobsters” – due to the misleading fact that crates of lobsters sent abroad from Logan Airport bear a Boston label – are overblown, according to Bennett.
“As buyers get more education as to where the lobster is coming from, the perception that they’re coming from Boston and not Maine seems to be going away. I don’t hear it as much as used to – not like I did at first,” he said. “But it shows how new this all is, especially in the Far East. Thankfully, we’ve been at it long enough now that we’re starting to build up brand and name recognition, and that “Boston” misnomer seems to be slowly going away.”
Bennett said with the larger harvests, it’s imperative that Maine work to expand and develop new markets. Currently, the largest international markets for Maine lobster are China, South Korea, Hong Kong and the European Union. But Bennett said he has expanded his mission to new markets.
“We’re looking at trying to develop markets we haven’t been in before, like Singapore, Indonesia and the Middle East, which is the fastest-growing market for Maine lobster right now,” he said.
No place like home
Meanwhile, Jacobson’s work the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative is focused on increasing sales in North America, where 85 to 90 percent of all Maine lobster is sold.
Founded in 2013, the collaborative, which has three employees is funded by a surcharge on Maine’s 315 lobster harvesters, dealers and processors. It hired Jacobson as executive director in 2014 and has an estimated budget between USD 1.7 and 2.2 million (EUR 1.5 and 2 million) for 2016.
“With the size of our budget, global marketing just isn’t a priority. We have to focus our efforts on where we can have the most impact, and the best place to do that is our biggest market,” Jacobson said. “Unfortunately, we run out of money way before run out of good ideas.”
The collaborative’s recent efforts have focused on “new shell” lobsters, also commonly known as soft-shell lobsters or shedders, which it advertises as a seasonal delicacy with a sweeter taste and more tender texture. With an estimated 85 percent of lobster consumed in restaurants (according to the National Restaurant Association), Jacobson worked on getting new shell lobsters into kitchens throughout the country to allow chefs to taste the difference for themselves, but found that many chefs need a basic education on how to handle and cook lobsters.
“As we talked to chefs, we realized there was an enormous information gap with lobster and how to deal with it,” Jacobson said. “We realized that is a big problem, and so we’ve really focused on basic education for chefs, and only once that has been established do we go beyond what they think they know about lobster.
And while a lot of the lobster served in North American restaurants is sold boiled and whole, Jacobson is also pushing chefs to get more creative.
“We want them to know they can do all kinds of things with lobster, and we see that in our data, chefs are starting to use really creative ingredients with lobster, like wasabi, cilantro and beets,” Jacobson said. “We really encourage that, because we want to emphasize the seasonality of new-shell lobster – that it’s only available July through October.”
Such conversations align the collaborative’s efforts with the burgeoning farm-to-table movement, Jacobson said.
“People now want to know the story behind their food, and fortunately, Maine lobsters have a great story behind them: these fishermen have been going out for five generations in day boats, doing it the right way: throwing the little ones back and the big ones back. The ‘lobsterman as hero’ is a story that people will buy, and I think it will help differentiate lobster from every other protein and seafood type,” Jacobson said. “That type of marketing and directionality has never been done by the industry before, and I think there’s no better proof that it’s working than the recent survey that shows that restaurants can charge more for their lobsters if they label them on their menus as being from Maine.”
The survey came out of the collaborative’s partnership with public relations firm Weber Shandwick, the creator of the famous “got Milk?” and “the other white meat” ad campaigns. Jacobson said he’s been pleased with the firm’s work and is very excited to see his team “firing on all cylinders.”
“It hasn’t been a year yet since we got the full effort moving, and I think for our first year we’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve gotten our metrics built, we’ve built our messaging,” Jacobson said. “I think these upcoming years will be big, especially with the large harvests we’re expecting, and we’ve only scratched surface in terms of marketing – we have barely penetrated foodservice side of business – so what we’re able to do and how we’re able to measure it will be critical.”
With authorization for the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative expiring in 2018, Jacobson said he’s keen to show the collaboration’s value to the companies that are funding it.
“I’m not naïve – not everybody is thrilled about paying little bit more for lobster licenses. But everybody recognizes the industry is different now. We catch more, the market is more saturated and moves quicker. We need somebody advocating for us or we’ll go back to 2012, and nobody wants to see that. To its credit, the industry has been to coalesce around this initiative,” Jacobson said. “It’s up to the industry as to whether we will be reauthorized, but we have to prove our worth. I’m not comfortable lobbying, but I think the collaborative’s work speaks for itself – we’re doing good work and we think it matters. Hopefully the industry will think that as well,” Jacobson said.
Bennett, of the Maine International Trade Center, said the industry has made major progress in adapting to the age of higher catches and more demanding consumers.
“The collaborative has been a great effort and I think what doing is great and beneficial for everyone. I know our dealers are working just as hard on the international side of things as well,” Bennett said. “The current success we’re experiencing is the result of a combination of everybody working on this together for a long time now. It has been an encouraging couple of years we are in good shape to deal with the challenges we know are in front of us. We know we’ll only succeed by working together.”