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The Town of Stonington is beginning the second phase of the Stonington Lobster Handling and Marketing Project this week, according to a press release. This project, started earlier in the year, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with some matching funds provided by the town.
The overall goal of the project is to position Stonington lobster as the best tasting and highest quality lobster in the world—hopefully resulting in higher prices to local fishermen in years to come. To accomplish this goal, a team of specialists, local professionals, and Stonington fishermen has been assembled.
Stonington Economic Development Director Matthew Skolnikoff and town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris are co-managing the project, which is an outgrowth of the Stonington Lobster Working Group.
The project has many components. One aspect will be a pilot study to test the actual impact of different “best handling practices” for lobster on board boats, at the docks, and in transport, and come up with a guide on how to best handle, store, and transport lobster so it reaches markets and processors in good shape.
It is estimated that over 20 percent of Maine lobster landed dies between the point when it is landed and the time it reaches the final consumer. Many factors contribute to this mortality: handling practices on the boats, docks, and throughout the marketing chain; temperatures; lobsters being out of the water for too long; cramped storage; incorrect pH and aeration levels in holding tanks; and so on. By finding out how to best reduce the mortality, the hope is that fishermen can be offered a better price for their product.
Testing and refining best practices to reduce lobster mortality, or “shrinkage” as it is known in the industry, will be conducted this summer by Holly Eaton and the staff at Penobscot East Resource Center, in conjunction with Hugh Reynolds and the staff at Greenhead Lobster, local fishermen, and Dana Morse and David Basti of the University of Maine. The results will be incorporated into written materials for public review and a DVD that will be produced by Opera House Arts and distributed free of charge to local fishermen.
The town hired a marketing specialist who has undertaken an analysis, during phase one of the project, of how to best market Stonington lobster. Kristen Bailey has been looking into various processed products and means of marketing lobster as well as identifying the fact that Stonington lobster—as opposed to lobster caught elsewhere in the state or region—does come out on top in blind taste tests. Stonington lobster is specifically requested by some of the top chefs and finest restaurants in the U.S.
Skolnikoff will look into various means to brand and promote Stonington lobster, develop a marketing strategy based on Bailey’s work, incorporate Stonington’s handling practices, explore local processing issues, and analyze lobster handling issues after the lobster leaves Stonington.
When the project wraps up in September, organizers should have a blueprint for how to increase the price of lobster in years to come through improved handling practices on the boats and docks, as well as a branding and marketing strategy. Information can be used locally to increase sales and profits. The town will not be involved materially or financially in the lobster industry.
Stonington is the number one commercial fishing port in Maine (by value) and the number one lobster port in the U.S. The recent crisis in the industry due to huge volumes of lobster landed, insufficient processing facilities, and marketing issues makes this project more timely and appropriate than when it was originally conceived. Though the project will not remedy the current crisis, it is hoped that the results of this work will prevent such a crisis from affecting Stonington and its lobster industry in the future.