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South Bristol coop finds success in a small space

“Why’d we start the co-op? Well, we just thought we could get a better price for the lobsters and maybe reap some profit,” said Sonny Leeman, general manager of the Co-op and one of its founding members. Leeman and eleven other fishermen banded together in 1973 and set up the co-operative as a business. But then they had to find property on the water from which to operate. They made offers here and there but found no one willing to sell waterfront land to them. “Finally the gentleman who had this piece said, ‘sure, I’ll sell to you’ and there we were,” Leeman said, gesturing to the grey office building and extensive wharf. Leeman, who began lobstering in grammar school, retired his boat ten years ago. “I went dragging as well and it all got too complicated,” he said. Since then he has been the co-op’s general manager. The co-op has two weighing stations, floats, flowing seawater tanks for the retail shop and a landing on which to store traps. Recently Leeman had the main wharf rebuilt. “Those big trucks, they wear it out,” he said with a shake of his head. Terry Mitchell, Leeman’s daughter, handles the retail store during the summer season. “I worked here summers in high school and college and look at me now,” she says with a laugh. For two months during the summer, the small shop offers live and cooked lobsters, clams and sundry items, such as sodas and candy. She said that the business does well during those months selling visiting pleasure boats diesel and gas as well as fresh seafood. Yet the main business of the co-op is landing lobster and, during the winter season, shrimp. The thirty active co-op members brought in slightly more than 800,000 pounds of lobster in 2009, Leeman said, and an equal volume of Maine shrimp. Both items are sold to Cozy Harbor Seafood of Portland. Leeman said that the co-operative has done well for its members over the years. Like other co-ops, it provides its members with a bonus at the end of the year and keeps bait and fuel costs as low as possible. He buys the co-op’s bait from Purse Line Bait and several other local businesses. “We’re getting a little worried ,” he admitted. “The allocation and all that. Right now we’re using frozen bait, packets.” The co-op has one cooler and one cooler/freezer unit in which to store bait. “Usually we don’t have the freezer on at all because we’re getting fresh bait,” Leeman said. “This year we’re using it all the time because we’re getting the frozen stuff.” Leeman doesn’t think much has changed in the local lobstering community since the co-operative was formed 37 years ago, with one major exception. “The worst thing is the price of the product versus what it costs to go now. I don’t know that I’d want to be a young guy getting started now,” he said. “You have to buy a boat and get a gang of traps, and you get the same price that you could have gotten 25 years ago.” Mitchell finishes weighing a pound of clams for a customer then leans over the counter toward Leeman. “The major difference I see is that they complain more,” she says half-seriously. “Of course, there’s good reason. They are under a lot of pressure because of what it costs to go versus what they get for the product.”

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