STONINGTON — The town of Stonington is beginning the second phase of the Stonington Lobster Handling and Marketing Project this week.
The project, started earlier this year, is being funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with some matching funds being provided by Stonington, Matthew Skolnikoff, the town’s economic development director, announced in a press release.
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, Skolnikoff said.
Stonington is the number one commercial fishing port in Maine (by volume) and the number one lobster port in the United States, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The recent crisis in the industry due to huge volumes of lobster landed, insufficient processing facilities and marketing issues makes this project even more timely and appropriate than when it was originally conceived, Skolnikoff said. 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.
Skolnikoff and Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris are co-managing the project, which is an outgrowth of the Stonington Lobster Working Group, which started addressing these issues in 2009. Residents and fishermen are participating.
Skolnikoff said the project has many components.
One aspect of it will be a pilot study to test the actual impact of different “best handling practices” for lobster on board the 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.
Currently, 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.
Several 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, etc. Because dealers, wholesalers, processors and retailers must absorb this loss they pay the fishermen a lower price for the lobster at the dock.
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 working with local fishermen as well as Dana Morse and David Basti of the University of Maine.
The results will then be incorporated into written materials for public review as well as a video in DVD format that will be produced by Linda Nelson and her staff at Opera House Arts and distributed free of charge to local fishermen.
In addition, the town hired a marketing specialist who has undertaken an analysis, during phase one of the project, of how to best market Stonington lobster for the highest price to local fishermen.
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 actually come out on top in blind taste tastes. Stonington lobster is specifically requested by some of the top chefs and finest restaurants in the United States.
Finally, Skolnikoff will look into various means to brand and promote Stonington lobster, develop a marketing strategy based on Bailey’s work and incorporating Stonington’s handling practices, explore local processing issues, analyze lobster handling issues after the lobster leaves Stonington and tie the project all together.
By the time the project wraps up in September Stonington should have a solid blueprint for how to increase the price of lobster to the fishermen in years to come through improved handling practices on the boats and docks as well as a branding and marketing strategy.
All of this information can then be used locally by individuals and businesses to increase their sales and their profits. The town itself will not be involved materially or financially in the lobster industry.
The town of Stonington invites downtown business owners and residents to a breakfast meeting at the Harbor Café (left side) on Thursday, July 19, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Coffee cake, juice, coffee and tea will be provided.
The agenda includes discussing the Downtown Network, how local business owners can promote and advertise their businesses and the community and how Stonington can work together to create new social and retail events to bring people downtown year-round.