n days of dwindling stocks and dwindling access to stocks, fishermen should be thinking of marketing their product directly to consumers to get the greatest value for their catch.
A large variety of experts at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum offered a wide range of marketing ideas during a Feb. 28 panel entitled “More Bang for Your Buck: Owning Your Products from the Dock to the Plate.”
Panelists included representatives from the fishing community, agriculture, academia, the Maine legislature and others from North Carolina to Eastport.
Susan Andreatta, of the University of North Carolina, told how a group founded Carteret Catch to market local products.
“Visitors have enough salt water taffy and T-shirts,” said Andreatta. “We thought we could interest them in something else.” The group developed a logo, a brochure and a website and convinced retailers, restaurants and wholesalers to join the group and display the logo when selling North Carolina seafood.
“We educated them and we get the message out with recipes, contact information, business cards,” and labeling through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, she added. They created four “seasonality” cards listing which NC seafoods are available fresh in certain months.
Fishermen also run roadside stands where they earn retail prices for their seafood rather than wholesale prices, and some sold as much as 1,500 pounds a day. Some Maine shrimpers have taken the same approach, selling their catch directly from roadside trucks, saving fuel costs and increasing profits.
Kim Libby of Port Clyde, a founding member of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association and business manager of the local co-op, said she realized “the middlemen make all the money” so she decided to try direct marketing.
“We’re off the beaten path,” said Libby. “But I see little difference between fishermen and small farmers. We can’t count on the federal government to take care of us.”
Libby said she attended the International Boston Seafood Show just days before the Forum and “I didn’t see a single Maine shrimp there. I asked Paul Sorvino (an actor who launched a seafood line including shrimp at the Boston show) why he didn’t use them. He didn’t know there was a difference.
“This is a species that’s completely underutilized,” said Libby, who expects the direct sale of local species to begin paying off “once the message spreads.”
A retired professor, Lucie Bauer, said the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Universalist Unitarian Church in Rockland started buying shares in local organic farms a few years ago. Farmers delivered on Sundays to the church where shareholders could pick up their produce. It worked so well, they expanded to buying fresh shrimp, during the season, directly from fishermen through Libby and the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association.
Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, encouraged fishermen to sell their catch at farmers’ markets and other venues as small, organic farmers are doing. (Two years earlier, he gave the same advice during a shrimp workshop at the Forum, and some people listened.)
Will Hopkins, director of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center, said farmers in Maine had been encouraging Maine scallopers to “brand” their catch and market directly. The resource center will build a joint-use building in Eastport, with a kitchen. “We can add value and sell the scallops, produce and other items.”
“We have the last good scallop grounds in Maine,” with good conservation measures in place and stringent catch limits, said Hopkins. Wholesaling scallops to distributors who don’t distinguish between the fresh dayboat scallops from Cobscook Bay and New Bedford scallops that might have been caught one or two weeks before, means Maine guys don’t get proper value for their product.
“We sell to a dealer for $6.25 to $6.50,” said Hopkins. “We sell for $10 per pound directly to a school in Ithaca, NY. And local people want a way to buy local scallops. Summer visitors are interested in buying local scallops frozen.” Besides seafood, the Eastport market will sell local organic blueberries, hydroponic tomatoes, organic chickens, milk and produce.
“The Maine Lobster Promotion Council found that Maine lobster was better known than Coke or Pepsi,” said Linda L. Bean of Port Clyde Foods. Bean uses raw, shucked Shucks Maine Lobster meat for the lobster stew she sells frozen because “It’s a one-cook process, humane and quick.”
A member of the Freeport retailing family, Bean owns a lobster wharf and pound and hopes to reduce the 70 percent of Maine lobster that’s sold to Canada, so she makes a profit only on the lobsters she buys and sells “not on the fuel and bait. I buy it and sell it for the price I pay.”
Two young Maine lobstermen, the Ready brothers, recounted their fledgling effort, “Catch a Piece of Maine,” in which they presold the contents of one lobster trap in Casco Bay for the season to a customer for $2,999. They began with 400 traps designated to the program.
For this “lease” fee, said John Ready, the “rich people or businesses who want to impress people” would receive lobster caught in the trap “by a genuine Maine lobsterman” and shipped overnight to any address.
Participants receive a monthly newsletter. Next season, the Readys hope to have video cameras installed so buyers may watch the eight lobstermen in the project when they haul customers’ traps. The Readys figure the value of lobsters sold in the program at around $58 each.
“It’s good publicity for the lobster industry, which strengthens the Maine brand,” said Ready. “We tried having customers come out on the boat, but then we realized we had to focus.
“It’s not easy to do something new in the fishing industry, but these eight guys stuck their necks out,” said Ready. “People said no one would ever pay. Anyone trying something new should get ready to take criticism, but use it as a motivator. Collaborate — do it right — and deliver.”