Penobscot Bay lobstermen survive by taking product directly to the people

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 2:15pm

    MIDCOAST—A newly formed alliance, Maine’s Working Waterfront-Seafood Connect has been the lifeline to keep lobstermen financially afloat. The group began as a Facebook idea last week to take the freshly caught product directly to the people, selling from wharves and parking lots. The reaction from the public has been overwhelmingly positive. And its surprise success is spurring other loosely formed alliances to do the same.

    On Saturday, March 28,  the roving seafood market set up camp in the Reny’s parking lot in Camden and sold out of product within two hours.

    On Sunday, different lobstermen returned to Reny’s parking lot, both in Camden and in Belfast, and did the same.

    The volunteer who put this all together, Ali Farrell, was on hand to witness the scene in Belfast.

    “We had four trucks set up and 200 people waiting to buy lobsters and crab,” she said. “The event started at 10 a.m.; people were lined up by 9:30 a.m. and they ended up selling out their catch in 10 minutes. We had to get in another truck by noon. All together in both locations, we did over 3,000 pounds this weekend.”

    In Camden, on Sunday, Owls Head lobsterman Donald Williams arrived with his two stern men with multiple crates of hard-shell lobster they hauled Saturday as well as a crate of rock crabs.

    “We’re always looking for other markets and when the things we normally do aren’t working, you’ve got to use social media to sell the product,” said Williams, who began working out of the back of his truck, setting up a scale and organizing crates. Williams who lobster fishes independently said, “This time of year is low volume [in terms of catch].”

    The Facebook collective that Farrell set up with Maine Working Waterfront-Seafood Connect provided Williams and a number of lobstermen, a new pipeline. 

    “It really happened at both the worst and best time, because this time of year we’re not able to do much; there’s not a ton of lobsters out there, but we can at least sell what we catch,” he said.

    Unlike strict lobster territories, this new seafood market is open to all and someone else might show up at Reny’s parking lot next week.

    “It’s all weather dependent, but everyone is sort of covering each other,” said Farrell. “The lobstermen are all working together really well to ensure there’s enough to sell to everyone.”

    “This time of year with everything going on, and with the wharf price for lobster being only $3.50 per pound, this is super helpful to our families,” said William’s sternman Linwood Sedgwick.  “I’ve got three kids. [Jesse Wilgus, William’s other sternman] also has three kids.”

    Unfortunately, the shellfish fishermen who provide oysters, clams and scallops who were the initial part of the pre-pay model, have to operate differently.

    Resources for oysters and other fresh shellfish:

    Island Institute’s Aquaculture and Fishing webpage

    The win-win for the customer is the price and the guarantee of fresh-caught products. Williams was selling lobsters priced at $6 a pound; rock crab at $1 apiece. Cutting out the middleman has allowed lobstermen to make a profit while giving a great deal to the customer. Lobster for example being sold through Hannaford supermarkets is $9.99 per pound.

    The crowd of 20 or so people who formed at 10 a.m. in Camden stood the six-feet recommended length apart when making their purchases as did the crowds in Belfast.

    An update to the original story states that the selling stations will utilize a drive-through system with a basket on a gaff to exchange money. Gloves and masks will be work by the sellers. Venmo will also be taken as a currency alternative. Buyers are to bring their own bags and coolers.

    Marine Patrol has been present in multiple locations ensuring that the lobstermen handling the product are licensed and are exchanging the product properly.

    One man standing in line in Camden planned to buy six lobsters.

    “Friends of mine are lobstermen,” said Jim Richard, of Camden. “I feel bad for some of these people because their normal buying stations are closed and with Canada’s market is closed. It’s just at a point right now with big investments, fuel and bait and everything going on that at least now,  they have chance to break even. It’s great to be able to come here and contribute a bit and the product is always good.”

    Farrell said the initial idea to pre-order seafood [mentioned in PenBay Pilot’s first story on the collective: A new Facebook group directly connects Maine fishermen to local buyers], went out the window. “I had hundreds of people contacting me and with a full-time job and two kids, I couldn’t handle it all,” she said. “We had to go to a first-come-first-serve model.”

    The model is now moving at a fast pace, changing locations daily. To keep up on where lobstermen will be selling their catch next, stay tuned to the Maine’s Working Waterfront-Seafood Connect  Facebook page.

    Related story: A new Facebook group directly connects fishermen to local buyers

    Kay Stephens can be reached at