Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NH Lobstermen respond to tough time with innovation, teamwork

DURHAM, NH - In 2009, the per-pound value of lobster was 15% less than it's average value during the previous three years. More lobsters were landed than ever before, yet revenue and profits were still on the decline. On top of that, diesel prices were climbing from $2 to around $4 per gallon. The future was beginning to look pretty dire.

Like many people, Damon Frampton was losing hope for "business as usual" lobstering. But later that year, he decided to take matters into his own hands, opening up a small lobster pound and naming it the Portsmouth Lobster Company.
The pound's business plan puts the lobstermen at the top of the pyramid. Damon is continually looking for ways to market lobsters from between three and six vessels in ways that send more money back to the boats.

Around the same time, people in the fishing industry and local community formed the Portsmouth Fishing Committee to publicize the challenges faced by the local seafood industry and the availability of locally caught lobster and fish.
Since 2009, the committee has produced both the Portsmouth Fish and Lobster Festival, which is known as "Fishtival" and held each year in Portsmouth in September, and the "NH Fresh and Local" seafood brand.

In forming the Portsmouth Lobster Company, Frampton boldly waded into the processing and distribution side of lobstering, and his education about the complexities and challenges of the lobster industry off the boat began. "I cannot believe all of the steps and issues that you have to get through to get lobster on someone’s table," he said. Early on in this journey, a new face showed up at the dock, asking about bait bag material and if he could go out on a lobster boat to learn more about the business. Frampton obliged.

The new guy was Dave Hickman, and when he appeared the next day without slickers and in leather boots, it looked to Frampton that he would be "one and done."
Hickman described that day this way: "Damon thought for sure that he’d be watching me cling to the rail, but I managed to keep my lunch down."

Soon after, Hickman found work on a lobster boat, not Frampton’s, but one that sat next to his and sold its catch to the Portsmouth Lobster Company. Then, after about a year, Hickman finally did get off the boat – to dedicate more time to selling live lobsters for Frampton’s lobster pound.

Problem becomes opportunity
In the summer of 2011, Frampton and Hickman identified a clear problem they needed to deal with -- culls. These one-clawed lobsters can be upwards of 20% of the total catch for New Hampshire lobstermen, and they are a problem because they bring down the price significantly. "Sold directly to wholesale, culls can cost you between 10 cents and 25 cents a pound," said Hickman. That’s a significant loss for a lobsterman who lands 50,000 pounds of lobster in a year.

"Our goal was to have all the lobsters we sell wholesale be able to do handstands," Hickman quipped. "That way, we’d get the best price possible for our catch."
But how to get rid of them was the question. What can you make with the unwanted, misfit, one-armed lobsters? Would you believe ravioli?

Frampton and Hickman hatched the idea and then decided to dive headlong into exploring the creation of a value-added product line for their lobsters.
Hickman first approached Kevin Cambridge, founder of the Terra Cotta Pasta Company in Dover to see if it could be done. Cambridge immediately liked the idea and the first batch of lobster ravioli was made on Sept. 15, 2011.

Next, Hickman, looking for a buyer, brought the product to The Common Man in Portsmouth. The Common Man is a family of 18 restaurants throughout the state of New Hampshire. "From the beginning, they liked the idea, and they wanted to support local lobstermen," Hickman said. Unfortunately, it was too late in the seasonal schedule to get on the menu -- the gold standard for marketing to a restaurant. But lobster ravioli would run as a special in Common Man restaurants.

In order to get the ravioli to the Common Man, Hickman worked with Tides Fish Market in Rochester to process the lobster. There, the lobsters were separated into meat and bodies.

The meat was destined to become lobster ravioli served at The Common Man via the Terra Cotta Pasta Company, but what about the bodies?
Enter yet another local business, the Portsmouth Chowder Company. Hickman and Frampton worked with the company to use the bodies to make a lobster chowder, which The Common Man agreed to sell. The only thing still left to do is find a market for the shells."It would make a great fertilizer," said Hickman.
So stay tuned. The chain of local businesses engaged in this project may become longer still.

Teamwork key
The Common Man is one company on a growing list of businesses selling seafood with the NH Fresh and Local seafood brand. The brand tells consumers that they are supporting local fishermen and eating the freshest seafood possible that is responsibly harvested. As a result, the Portsmouth Lobster Company is on its way to solving its cull problem. "We just wanted the 'culls' to go away, and now many of them are, plus they are giving us additional profits," said Frampton. "It’s a start."

Hickman explained that developing new markets like these is not easy.
"Any time you do something new in the seafood industry, there can be unintended consequences," he said. "But teamwork has been the key for us."
Frampton and Hickman have cautiously moved forward while respecting their neighbors and working together to promote and develop a value chain that directs more money to the boats. Each defers credit to the other for their success, and it is clear they share a tremendous amount of mutual respect. Their experience demonstrates how improved relationships and trust among harvesters, processors, distributors, and marketers can shed light on new business opportunities that can help fishermen.
In the end, the Portsmouth Lobster Company has successfully helped several small businesses through local branding and cultivating relationships among businessmen and women who care about supporting local seafood harvesters, who, in turn, sell to customers who also care about supporting local fishermen and want responsibly harvested, locally caught, fresh seafood.

This is one exceptionally positive story to come out of difficult times.

Erik Chapman

Erik Chapman is an Assistant Fisheries Extension Professor at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension/New Hampshire Sea Grant College Program. He may be reached at (603) 862-1935 or e-mail him at . More information on the NH Fresh and Local seafood brand is available online at .
Portsmouth Lobster Company's lobster ravioli is now available at retail and restaurant locations throughout New Hampshire. For more information on where you can purchase it, call Favorite Foods in Somersworth, NH at (603) 692-4990 or Dave Hickman at (603) 801-5796.

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