Consider the Sustainable, Traceable, Co-op-Caught Lobster

Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op is changing the way Maine lobsterman do business.
Lobster Roll. (Photo: Courtesy Luke's Lobster)
Sep 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Since the beginning of summer, Josh Miller’s daughters have pleaded with their father to bring home lobster for dinner, but the take-home catch keeps slipping his mind.

“It’s funny, but that’s how most lobstermen are—you forget to do it,” he said. “Finally, last week, I remembered.”

Four generations of Miller’s family have forgotten to bring home lobster from the wharf in Tenants Harbor, Maine. There was, at least, an emergency supply the family could tap into: Josh’s grandmother, and later his aunt, ran the restaurant on the dock. The Millers’ wharf is one of the few remaining family-owned wharves, and the Maine Department of Marine Resources recently preserved it, requiring that it continue to be used for commercial fishing.

Maine is serious about protecting its fishing industry—especially its lobster. (It passed a law back in 1872 against catching pregnant lobsters.) That is another reason Josh Miller has to be forgetful: This spring, a group of about 20 fishers formed the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op, and Miller became the president.

It’s a change of pace from his previous 18 years as a lobsterman. “I always sold to a wharf,” he said. “I pulled in and sold my catch and was never a part of anything that happened after that,” he said. But Miller’s family and members of the co-op “were looking for a little different way of doing business.”

They decided to call Maine native Luke Holden of Luke’s Lobster, a fast-casual seafood shack mini chain that trumpets sustainability and traceability on its menus. They wanted to consider some “outside-the-box” ideas.

Through a partnership with Miller and his fellow lobstermen, Luke’s Lobster sister company Cape Seafood is now the guaranteed buyer for every pound of lobster the co-op catches. Cape Seafood purchases the shellfish at or above market rate, though the co-op is free to sell to another buyer should a better offer come along. By guaranteeing a buyer and cutting out middlemen, the partnership has created some financial security for members of the co-op.

“There’s never a time that they have to gas up their boats, pay for bait, and spend a whole day out on the water not knowing if they’re going to find a buyer,” said Ben Conniff, Luke’s Lobster president and cofounder.

The agreement also made the distance from lobster trap to seafood shack incredibly short: The restaurant Miller’s grandmother once ran is now Luke’s at Tenant’s Harbor. When the co-op approached Holden with the idea of working together, he suggested the restaurant share half its profits with the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op.

“To put some skin in the game right off the back—it said a lot,” Miller said. It also made the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op the first fisherman's co-op to integrate both a processing facility and a restaurant into its operations.

That’s where the extra bit of financial security comes in. Maine lobstering, with its many regulations—including a mandatory apprentice program for new harvesters, a statewide trap limit, and minimum and maximum size restrictions that protect both juveniles and the healthy breeding stock from traps—is considered the gold standard of sustainability in the fishing industry. As a company, Luke’s Lobster wants to help communicate the value of the co-op’s catch—and that of all the fisheries it works with—to its diners.

“For us it’s really about finding people who are doing things the right way and doing our best to transparently communicate who they are and what they’re doing,” Conniff said.

Luke’s Lobster, for instance, knew its Jonah crab fishery used sustainable practices, but it could work with the fishery directly to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on methods and standards in a codified way. That process gives Luke’s Lobster certainty on the quality of product, and it also bolsters the long-term financial sustainability of the fisheries.

“Once we did that, then Monterey Aquarium Fish Watch upgraded the sustainability rating of the fishery,” he said, “and that means those fishermen will now have more markets at higher prices for their catch.”

Luke’s Lobster regularly receives calls for advice from people working on sustainability fisheries and related business on how to effectively communicate the value of their catch in a food economy in which consumers have grown accustomed to cheap price tags. Conniff and Holden say the partnership between Luke’s and the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op is a model that has potential throughout the fishing industry.

“There’s going to be all sorts of opportunity to take this model and apply variations of it up and down the coast,” Holden said.

It’s a model that also matters to fishers. Rather than sign on a wholesaler’s dotted line, for the first time in their careers many are experiencing a level of involvement with the supply chain after their catches leaves the boat. It doesn’t hurt that they’re getting a better price for the highest-quality product, Miller said.

“But there should also be some amount of security in the fact that now we, as a co-op, are controlling where our lobster go,” he said. “To know where your lobster is going, it feels good. It feels good to me.”