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Bremen Fishermen's Cooperative jumps into the future

First published in MLA Newsletter, June, 2011.

After 73 years as a lobster pound and 16 years as a co-op, the Bremen Lobster Cooperative is adding a brand new seafood processing facility to its property at the end of Keene Neck Road. The new plant will allow the cooperative to diversify the types of products they sell, as well as helping them ride out instability in the economy. Co-op member Dana Johnson remembers his father and uncle fishing from the dock here when he was young. They started bringing Johnson to fish with them when he was about five years old. Johnson has been a member of the Bremen Co-op since it formed in 1995. The founding members bought the land and buildings from Lowell Sewall, explained Johnson. Today three families own the co-op:  the Johnson, the Carter, and the Poland families. The first lobster pound was built on the property in 1938, then a second built in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. Those two lobster pounds could hold up to 100,000 pounds of lobster, according to Johnson. When the pounding business first began, the winters were much colder which kept the stored lobsters dormant. “As the winter temperatures rose, the lobsters didn’t become dormant anymore,” Johnson said. “It became too expensive to feed the lobsters, and a significant percentage of them were devoured by their pound mates while being stored.”

“The new facility will allow us to store the lobsters instead of selling them on a daily basis. This will allow us to access more lucrative markets.”  Boe Marsh In 2008, the Bremen Co-op received a Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program grant from the state for $300,000. With the grant in hand, things began to change rapidly at the co-op --  a state-of-the-art processing facility is just about finished as well as some much-needed dock repair and crib work. Boe Marsh came on board last year to get the processing facility up and running as well as manage sales and marketing for the co-op. “The co-op thought it was a good idea to vertically integrate the business,” Marsh said. “We were able to build the new facility, which will allow us to store the lobsters instead of selling them on a daily basis. This will allow us to access more lucrative markets.” Part of the co-op’s business plan is to expand the types of shellfish it sells. In the off-season, most co-op lobstermen fish for shrimp, scallops or oysters, Marsh said. Some dig steamer clams. The new processing room will allow the Bremen Co-op to offer these products to both wholesalers and consumers. Work on the new building began in September of last year and should be completed by the end of May. The Bremen Co-op expects to hire five or six workers to process seafood, Marsh said. “We’re hoping the new facility will inspire the fishermen to harvest more product,” Johnson said. “They’ll have to invest in more gear to catch different types of shellfish, but the new building will make for much more efficient selling.” The building is very specialized, with large coolers, a flash freezer, and a cold storage area. The flash freezer was added to the processing facility to contribute to better sanitation and product freshness. According to Marsh, it can freeze fresh-picked product from room temperature to –80 degrees F. in one minute, freezing up to 500 pounds of seafood in an hour. The new cement cold storage tank can hold 120 crates of lobsters weighing 90 pounds each. It will keep the animals at 38 degrees F. so the lobsters stay in hibernation for up to 90 days. The seawater in the storage tank is filtered through five tons of rock and coral in an adjoining room. The co-op has also added a small cooking facility at the back of the building which will allow employees to cook up to 90 pounds of lobster at a time. The cooking facility is mostly for the wholesale side of the business, although Johnson said it may be used for retail sales as well. Most of the co-op’s business is wholesale, with retail sales making up just three percent of total sales. But that might change too. “Everyone is welcome to buy here. We’re seriously considering expanding our retail business,” Marsh said. “It makes sense for us, because we don’t have to transport the product or pay those associated costs.” Rising fuel costs, spurred by problems in the economy, have hit everyone hard. “The economy affects demand. Fuel prices affect the cost of bait and almost all the products we use,” said Johnson. “In 2008, when fuel prices rose so high, the price of lobster was at a 25-year low. There was no way to make a profit in that environment.” Offering diversified products and the ability to store them will help the co-op survive future fluctuations in the market. “This will help us both remove the volatility and have access to more markets,” he said. “Obviously, there are more costs at first, but it will definitely be worth it when the facility is completed.” Three co-op employees are now HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) certified, as required by the federal Food and Drug Administration. There will always be a HACCP-certified person at the facility at all times, said Marsh. “The room must be temperature-controlled and everything must be sparkling clean and sanitized with bleach. There are strict rules about cleaning, so that no fluids or bacteria are transferred from product to product,” Marsh said. “We must maintain complete segregation between products. Clams, lobsters, shrimp, and oysters cannot be processed in the same place at the same time.” Co-op general manager Gary Worthley is excited to see construction of the new facilities completed and looks forward to this summer when it will be up and running. “We’ve spent many hours working on this building,” he said. “It will be good to see workers processing the new products we can now offer.”

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