Quiet Wharfs & the Business of Lobstering

February 6, 2018 | By: Merritt Carey

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When most of us think about lobster from Maine, we think about the colorful buoys that dot our coastline all summer, fishermen hauling their traps and bringing their catch in each day, and of course, the bright red of a steaming hot lobster with a side of warm melted butter. But the lobster industry, a $513mm landed value for 2016, and the state’s biggest economic driver along its coast — is multifaceted and complex: getting a lobster from trap to table requires not just on-the-water skills but business savvy as well.

Some fishermen pick up all their gear for the winter and haul their boats out (“I can rest when my gear’s up and my boat is sitting in my driveway; easier to check on that way!”); other lobstermen fish all 800 traps all winter; and some leave just a day’s worth of gear to haul when they can.  And while there is usually some fishing activity on every wharf throughout the colder months, this is often a time to take stock, think about the year to come and focus on the business end of fishing.

Every wharf along the coast runs differently, some are privately owned and operate as just buying stations, some (though fewer and fewer) are family owned; and some are run by fishermen’s co-operatives. All co-ops operate differently but the general premise is the same: the co-op buys from individual fishermen who are its members, and then sells to another buyer, most likely a processor. Some co-ops call around on a daily or weekly basis to see who will pay the highest price for their lobsters; others, like the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op, on whose board I sit, sell to the same buyer consistently; most fall somewhere in the middle, selling to buyers with whom they have established relationships. When the co-op sells its lobsters, it withholds a certain amount per pound to run its operations. Theoretically at the end of the year, a bonus is paid out to the fishermen based on their individual landings.  Private wharfs often operate on the same premise, though it’s not the fishermen, but the wharf owners, who decide on the bonus. One of the year-end business matters for our co-op’s board is to decide what the bonus will be.

We have standing monthly board meetings on the second Thursday of every month. Unless there’s a weather window and it’s a haul day; then we reschedule. (“I may be hauling through in 3 days in which case Thursday will work, otherwise Thursday’s a haul day.”)  We met a few days before Christmas, on what was one of the first biting winter days we’d had. With a 20 knot northerly breeze in the harbor, it was definitely not a haul day. The wharf was quiet; ample parking where during high summer there is none.  Hundreds of traps were stacked all along the wharf; gear recently brought in by fishermen but not yet removed from the wharf to winter storage: the yards, shops and barns of our fishermen.  I arrived a few minutes late (I know whose truck is whose, they were all there except my little gray one) and hustled up the stairs to the small wharf office which sits above the bait shed. There is the “outer office,” working space for the wharf employees, and the “inner office”, where our accountant works and where we typically meet. The propane heater was blasting and board members sat around the small space in the odd assortment of chairs that comprised the office furniture. No long oak table, no portraits of company founders in this board room: just 5 fishermen and me. The view, out over a harbor speckled with fishing boats against a backdrop of newly fallen snow and spruce trees, was however, a million dollar view.

Lobstermen in front of traps photo taken by merritt carey

When I entered, the conversation was of weather and what the guys who were still fishing were catching (just like McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine where Mr. Condon and Mr. Clifford sit in the store “talking about trapping lobsters and how the fish were biting.”) We transitioned to the “formal” part of the meeting with a discussion about donating to a charity called Boats for Bikes (https://www.facebook.com/BoatsForBikes/), started by a few kids at Oceanside High School in Rockland several years ago. The idea was that fishermen would donate or buy bikes for children in their community who were less fortunate.  The concept was successful and each year the giving has grown.  In these small coastal communities people look out for each other. If you look, you see it in the small daily gestures: food brought to an ailing neighbor, a wood box filled for an elderly neighbor.

At the co-op, in addition to our year end gift to Boats for Bikes; we donate to Trekkers, an organization supporting youth within the community, and we work with the Saint George Sailing Foundation, which gives considerable scholarships to local students, by donating lobsters and wharf space for their summer event. Other agenda items for this board meeting included our annual island clean up (did we want to organize it again; would it be best on a Saturday or Sunday; how early in June could we get out to the islands with the nesting shorebirds); our Alewife bait project with the Nature Conservancy, burgeoning scallop aquaculture efforts by several members, and what to do about our faltering forklifts.

The topics flowed seamlessly as they always do: this group had known each other for a lifetime. I was the outsider, connected only because I had worked on the wharf as a girl and knew the four fishermen who owned it. The matter of dividend distribution was discussed against the context of what we all knew: catch was down from last year (true along the entire coast); as a volume run business, decrease in landings meant higher per pound operating costs. Still we made a tentative decision for a bonus, though the formalities still had to be taken care of, a discussion with our accountant, a full co-op member meeting to discuss the bonus as well as overall operations and the upcoming season.  For now, though, our business was done, we bid each other merry Christmas and stepped out into the December air, another year behind us, a new one, with its promise and expectations, on the way.

snowy lobster traps in Maine photo taken by merritt carey