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The Maine Lobster Industry: Adapting and Evolving with the Impacts of COVID-19
A note from Marianne LaCroix, Executive Director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
As one of the oldest continuously operated industries in the United States, the Maine Lobster industry has a long tradition of adapting to new conditions. In the late 1800’s, canneries popped up along the Maine coast to provide lobster meat that could be shipped around the country to meet consumers’ growing appetite for the sweet crustacean. In the late 1900’s, dealers developed procedures for shipping live lobster as far away as China and Japan. Even in the last several years, local companies have developed new techniques for processing, shipping and freezing lobster. Now, as the world and our industry face the impacts of a global pandemic, the Maine Lobster industry will be ready to tap into that spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation and adapt again.
When the initial impacts of COVID-19 were felt, the Maine Lobster fishery was not in their peak harvesting season that occurs in the summer and fall, so many fishermen were off the water and processing plants either shut down for the season or were processing other seafood. This timing has allowed industry members the opportunity to assemble the best plan for operations given the new challenges.
One of those challenges, perhaps the most significant, is that about 70% of lobster sold from Maine is consumed away from home, in restaurant and foodservice settings, and those market channels are facing an uncertain future. Maine Lobster suppliers are pivoting to ensure that consumers have access to our products directly in light of so many restaurants being closed. Some are adding an online platform with direct-to-consumer sales, while others are producing products in retail packaging for grocery sales.
Fortunately, many Maine Lobster product formats have already been developed that are ideal for consumer use. As a testament to the industry’s nimbleness and flexibility, many of these products have been developed as a way to diversify and find new markets as Maine lobster harvests have increased. Cooked lobster meat, raw and split tails, and whole frozen lobsters are convenient and easy-to-use for the home cook, elevating traditional dishes or serving as a substitute for other popular proteins.
Shelf-stable products like frozen foods are in high demand as people stock up on groceries and make fewer trips to the store. Maine Lobster processors use the most advanced freezing technology available to provide customers and consumers with products that taste as fresh as the day the lobsters were caught. Nitrogen freezing, Maine processors’ most popular method for freezing lobster meat, uses sub-zero vapors to freeze the meat in under 20 minutes with minimal dehydration losses. This preserves the fresh sweet flavor and firm texture of the meat, giving buyers the convenience of a long shelf life while maintaining the superior taste and texture of fresh Maine Lobster.
And of course, like other processing plants, Maine Lobster processing facilities are faced with the challenge of operating safely with workers in close proximity to each other given new health guidelines. Maine plants are using a variety of procedures to limit the spread of the virus within their facilities and ensure that they can continue to operate without interruptions, building on existing sanitation protocols. Most facilities already had excellent procedures in place, especially those that produce ready-to-eat products like cooked lobster meat, which has stricter requirements than plants producing raw product.
The Maine Lobster industry has proven resilient in dealing with challenges in the past while developing products and procedures to meet new market conditions – and they will rise to the challenge of COVID-19 as well. Our industry will continue to bring Maine Lobster to those who want it, while providing safe working conditions for those in the industry. Maine fishermen and their communities depend on it.