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Maine and Canadian Lobster Industries Seek to Balance Competition and Cooperation
08/05/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

A year ago this week, an oversupply of soft-shell lobsters - due to early molting - had already dropped the dock prices paid to Maine fishermen to less than $2 a pound. Then, as all that cheap, excess product made its way into the Canadian Maritimes for processing, fishermen in that country watched their prices begin to drop as well, before their short lobster season had even begun. Frustrated, Canadian lobstermen spent several days blocking the shipments from entering processing plants along the Acadian Coast in New Brunswick. The protests shed new light on the supply and demand challenges facing the lobster industries in Maine and Canada. Officials on both sides of the border say expanded, more effective marketing is the key to stabilizing prices. But, in the first of a series of reports this week, Jay Field looks at how that's left Maine and Canada in the awkward position of needing to work together more closely, while also trying to outmarket each other.

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Originally Aired: 8/5/2013 5:30 PM
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This delicate dance was on display in late July at a hotel in Moncton, New Brunswick. An entourage from Maine traveled up to attend a two-day conference put on by the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Foundation and the University of Maine's Lobster Institute. In past years, the event focused more or less exclusively on science. But this year, the organizers invited fisheries ministers from the Maritimes and Maine to talk about the state of the industry. And they added a session on marketing.

"The biggest, two-clawed lobster resource in the world - we've got an amazing opportunity together to market," said Geoff Irvine, who runs the Lobster Council of Canada. Irvine quickly revised that idea: "maybe not together, but at least be mindful of how we're both marketing."

Irvine's marketing counterpart from Maine, Marianne Lacroix, sat listening a few feet away. When it was her turn, Lacroix, who heads the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, chose her words carefully.

"There's no benefit, from a branding standpoint, in pitting Maine against Canadian lobster because it doesn't benefit either of us in the end," she said. "The products are very intertwined. The businesses are very intertwined."

Canada imports more Maine lobster than any other country. Sixty to 70 percent of the catch here goes over the border to be processed, for use in various value-added products that often end up back in Maine with a "made in Canada" label on them. This dependence on Canada has defined the relationship since the early 90s. But now, Maine and Canada may be headed toward more direct competition in the marketplace.

"The Canadians are defining what quality in lobster is," says Jon Stamell, CEO of FutureShift, a New York-based marketing consulting firm. "And they've defined it as a hard-shell lobster, with a higher level of yield, because there's more meat in the shell."

Last fall, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council decided that the industry needed a new approach to its marketing efforts and more money to carry them out. Stamell's firm was picked to develop a new strategy for branding Maine lobster in a way that will allow it to penetrate more markets domestically and internationally.

Stamell and his associates did more than two hundred interviews. They talked to chain hotels, restaurant buyers, supermarket buyers, distributors and officials representing major markets in Europe and Asia.

"If you go out and you talk to chefs, they will tell you soft-shell lobsters have more flavor," he says. "They are sweeter, brinier, and the reason for that is there's water inside the shell. The meat is marinating live."

Stamell says the taste of Maine's soft-shell lobsters will be one of the major pillars of a new branding and marketing strategy his firm is preparing for the state. Pat Keliher says the change is long overdue. Keliher heads Maine's Department of Marine Resources.

"You look at how commodities are marketed, generically, around the world - we're not doing that," he says. "Maine lobster's not doing that at all. We spend $350,000 a year marketing lobsters. What does that do? Nothing, absolutely nothing."

This spring, the Legislature finally took steps to put the industry on better footing. It passed a bill creating a new entity called the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. In the coming years, the state will raise license fees on lobstermen, dealers and processors. The increases will eventually boost the marketing budget for Maine lobster to $2.5 million annually. The goal is to get a rebranded Maine product into more markets, domestically and internationally.



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Maine and Canadian Lobstermen Plagued by Same Supply and Demand Issues
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