Lobstermen survive with off-the-boat sales

Lobsterman Steve Lawrence, of Kittery, Maine, laughed this week, saying, “everybody panicked like they’d never see another lobster” when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Seacoast lobstermen have seen complete sellouts of their weekly catch since dining establishments and other businesses began to shut down as a result of the health emergency – but only because they’re finding alternative solutions to sell, mostly via retail sales to the public right off the boat.

Most lobstermen were notified by their wholesale dealers last week that since restaurants in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have been mandated to go takeout-only – resulting in many opting to close their doors completely – the buyers won’t be buying. There’s no one to sell to.

Area lobstermen have now turned to public-facing sales, many using Facebook to advertise pick-up times and locations, like parking lots and docks. And while the community support during the virus outbreak has so far been exceptional, some warn this model isn’t sustainable for the industry.

“We’re all just trying to survive, keep your help working and your boat working,” said Lawrence, who is selling on Saturday mornings from his 19 Pleasant St. dock in Kittery.

While some are calling the coronavirus “the great equalizer” – affecting people of all professions and income levels – the lobster industry had been faced with stormy seas prior, between new federal regulations, rising fuel and bait costs, warming waters, Chinese tariffs and opioid addiction. In October, the Portland Press Herald reported Maine’s total lobster catch was off by 40% from the prior year.

Since the onset of the coronavirus, lobster prices have dropped significantly.

Last week, citing the “substantial toll” the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on Maine’s independent fishermen, acquaculturists, wholesale dealers and seafood processors, Gov. Janet Mills pressed President Donald Trump to marshal the resources of the federal government to support Maine’s fishing and seafood industries.

“The markets for their products are collapsing both globally and locally,” Mills wrote in a letter to the president. “The men and women who ply our waters harvesting lobster, groundfish, herring, shellfish, countless other species, and farming aquacultured products are the very backbone of our rural coastal economy.”

In 2019, Maine lobstermen generated more than $485 million in landed value.

Mills said harvesters “have only limited opportunities within their communities to sell small quantities of product in the hopes of earning just enough money to buy weekly groceries.”

The F/V Last Penny, based out of the Portsmouth Commercial Fish Pier on Peirce Island, started its own Facebook page, called “F/V Last Penny Lobsters off the Boat,” to manage public sales when a post on a community Facebook page gauging interest was shared 1,900 times.

The Facebook page now has more than 2,500 members patiently awaiting the boat’s next catch.

On Monday, F/V Last Penny’s captain, Gary Glidden of Rye and Jake Eaton of Dover, sold for $5.50 per pound from the pier’s parking lot for three hours, where customers were given individual pick-up times to provide adequate “social distancing.”

“A week ago, dealers had to stop buying,” Eaton said. “That’s when guys started talking about gathering interest of locals and doing it off the boat. Otherwise we’re not making any money.”

Monday was a sellout for the Last Penny, with every lobster accounted for between 34 customers, many of whom drove 45 minutes to an hour to pick-up.

Some had ordered 15 lobsters, while others ordered between four and six. Shannah Lew, who drove from Nashua with her two young sons, arrived with two large coolers.

“You’d think I was pregnant,” Lew laughed. “My husband said, ’You know the food store has it.’ I told him, ’I don’t care, this is the good stuff.’”

Eaton said they’ve been contacted by people in Alaska asking if the lobsters can be shipped.

Each individual picking up on Monday told Glidden and Eaton to “keep the change.”

“It’s been unbelievable,” Eaton said of the community support. “My phone just wouldn’t stop, notification after notification.”

Eaton expressed gratitude that during a time when a record number of people are losing their jobs, lobstermen are still able to find solutions to put food on their tables.

“Everybody is going through this,” he said. “We’re the lucky ones still able to find a way to make money.”

Last Saturday, Lawrence said he sold out in an hour and 10 minutes. He told people to start arriving at 8 a.m., and they did so at 7:15 a.m.

“When I started doing this, I didn’t expect the turnout,” Lawrence said. “It just went crazy.”

Lawrence said he had one woman buy four lobsters from him, with her bill just over $30. “She demanded I take 80 bucks,” he said.

When the coronavirus health emergency started, Lawrence said lobster prices were around $7 per pound. Now it’s down to $5.50, during “a time of year when catch is minimal.”

To haul 250 traps over the course of January and February cost Lawrence $710 out of pocket before he made a penny, he said. Last week, after paying his expenses and his help, he pocketed $64.

“Just trying to keep things afloat,” Lawrence said.

The Kittery lobsterman usually sells retail from his dock in the summertime to make some extra money, and he hopes the public will return to support him then, even when the pandemic has passed and prices are back up.

Jeff White, chair of the York Lobstermen’s Association, warned that off the boat sales are not a sustainable, long-term solution for the industry, though lobstermen are currently having to resort to that.

“This is pretty much our slowest time of year anyways. Between the catch and the weather, there’s not much product coming in,” White said. “This wouldn’t be a solution in the busy season at all.”

White said lobstermen are “scratching our heads” wondering what’s next for the industry, depending on how long the health emergency and business shutdowns last.

“Lobster is a delicacy, not everyone leaves the grocery store with lobster every week,” White said. “But what we’re saying right now is take a break from the empty supermarket, let’s all help each other out. The price we’re charging is competitive with weekly groceries at this point.”

White, who has been selling off his boat beside the Hancock Wharf in York, expressed concern that the first few weeks of retail sales might go well as the community rallies around them, “but people don’t regularly eat lobster.”

“I can’t reiterate enough, it’s not the route we want to go in the future,” he said. “I think it’s a novel thing. I’m helping people and people are helping me. It’s because we’re in these trying times, people are willing to do a little something different.”

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