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  • MLCA

Steaming Ahead

The talk of the lobster industry this fall has been about the future of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) — to market or not to market? Lobstermen had lots of questions. What does the Collaborative actually do? Do they promote or sell Maine lobster? How can lobstermen be guaranteed that their investment in the Collaborative is paying off? The Collaborative’s director, Matt Jacobson, finished a tour of the zone councils in November to inform the councils of the Collaborative’s history and update them on the Collaborative’s activities to date. I have attended all of the zone council meetings in order to better understand how the industry feels about the Collaborative, and the level of industry support for its reauthorization. If the Legislature does not reauthorize the Collaborative, it will sunset in October, 2018. The Collaborative is an industry-funded effort whose costs are shared among lobstermen, dealers and processors. Everyone has skin in the game. Class I lobstermen pay a surcharge on their license of $165.25; Class II $330.50; Class III $480.75 toward the Collaborative’s $2.25 million budget. Dealers and processors also pay an amount that depends on the permits and endorsements they hold. Wholesale dealers with no supplements pay $1,200; those with up to two supplements pay $1,800; three to five supplements equals $2,400; six or more supplements pay $3,000. Processors who handle less than 1 million pounds pay $1,000; those over a million pounds pay $4,000. Before the November meetings, the conversation about the Collaborative’s future had been dominated by a small but vocal group on Facebook who oppose it. They don’t feel that they are getting their money’s worth and want a guarantee that their investment will convert into a higher boat price. Others on Facebook counter that the Collaborative is doing an excellent job creating demand for Maine lobster and should be continued. Feedback from the zone council meetings was fairly consistent along the coast. Each of the seven councils listened to an MLMC presentation, engaged in discussion and ultimately weighed in on the Collaborative’s future. Sadly, three of the seven zone councils did not even have a quorum present at the meeting and Department of Marine Resources staff had to poll those present rather than taking a formal vote. In the end, and after considerable discussion both for and against, all of the zone councils supported the continuation of the Collaborative. Zones C, E and F did not have a quorum and polled individual members, all of whom were in favor; Zones A, B and D voted unanimously in support and Zone G voted 7 to 3 in support. Those from the industry who showed up to speak against the Collaborative had a consistent message. To paraphrase, it went like this: I am not against marketing and think that the Collaborative has done good work. But I landed less lobster this year and my price went down so these programs aren’t working. I need to know that my investment in the Collaborative will come back to me in my boat price. I want proof that my investment is paying off. This led to discussions about what the Collaborative does and does not do, and the tools available to the Collaborative to measure its results. Jacobson made it clear that the Collaborative has implemented its work plan based on the statute that created it. The Collaborative’s board worked with Collaborative staff to create the current marketing and public relations strategy. The Collaborative does not sell lobster; rather they conduct marketing campaigns to increase demand for Maine lobster, specifically soft-shell. It is the dealers’ job to sell the product. The Collaborative is not able to directly measure how much lobster has been sold as a result of its marketing program. That information lives with Maine’s lobster dealors, the distributers they sell to, and others who ultimately move the product to consumers at the end of the supply chain. Given the complexity of the supply chain and proprietary nature of much of this information, it is unlikely that the Collaborative will ever have access to this data. I am very sympathetic to everyone who seeks a direct link between the Collaborative’s marketing efforts and lobster sales and increases in boat price. However, it is clear that this link is not possible right now. It is still important for the Collaborative, the industry and the Legislature to explore how we may be able to obtain some of this data, but that will take time. I hope that lobstermen will not undervalue the significant contributions that the Collaborative has made to the industry. The public relations component of the Collaborative’s work is huge. They have done an excellent job of creating positive press for the Maine lobster industry, telling the stories we want to tell and protecting the Maine brand against bad press. I experience the value of this firsthand because I field a lot of calls from the press. I know that the lobster fishery’s image needs to be actively managed in the incredibly fast-paced and always hungry media world; it would take just an instant for our industry to be irreparably damaged by bad press. One bad article can reach an international audience in the blink of an eye. Funding an organization like the Collaborative to deal with the media and maintain our image is essential to our ability to maintain and gain customers and keep interest in Maine lobster strong. Let’s remember that the Collaborative was only created in 2013. Its first few years were dedicated to hiring its director, creating a high-quality Web site, selecting a public relations firm, developing its marketing strategy and creating marketing materials, such as photos, videos and recipes, to support it. It has only actively conducted its marketing campaign with prominent chefs during the last two years. The Web site, photos, videos, recipes and social media campaigns provide significant benefit to everyone in the industry, from wharf owners to major seafood companies. In the absence of these materials, the visibility of Maine lobster and potential to gain new customers would suffer significantly. Finally, I believe the Collaborative has been extremely strategic in its work to date. They have identified restaurants in the U.S. market as a strategic, cost-effective place to begin their work. There is no lack of ideas about how to market Maine lobster. But it is the job of the Collaborative to identify those actions that have the greatest potential to be cost-effective and yield positive results. The U.S. market presents a tremendous growth opportunity for Maine lobster and targeting the sector where more than 80% of seafood is consumed is smart. I believe it is overly simplistic to reduce the discussion of reauthorizing the Collaborative to investment-versus-boat price. After all, lobstermen make investments daily that may or may not directly pay off. Lobstermen continue to fuel their boats and bait their traps, even when days or weeks go by and this investment does not pay off. Lobstermen purchase insurance for their boats, though few ever make a claim. Running a business requires one to make investments that reduces the risk of failure. Continuing to fund the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative must remain one of them. The purpose of marketing is not to provide a silver bullet that solves all problems. It is to make the good times better and the bad times hurt a little less. The MLA Board has already voiced its support for continue the Collaborative. It would be irresponsible for a $500 million industry to simply do away with all marketing. Maine lobster is part of the global economy and we need to continue to invest in maintaining our brand, building strong demand for our product and avoiding the possibility of customers simply losing interest in Maine lobster in favor of another product. As industry leaders, the MLA will work to see the Collaborative continue and will explore options to improve it and provide greater accountability to lobstermen and others in coming years. As always, stay safe on the water.


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