Maine lobster processors, long in Canada's shadow, look to boost industry, keep jobs in US

The Canadian Maritimes have long dominated the lobster processing industry, but Maine officials are hoping an upcoming bond referendum will allow the state to claw back the revenue, taxes and jobs it has been sending north of the border for years.

Maine's lobster processing industry, virtually nonexistent a quarter century ago, has grown steadily in recent years, and state officials are taking notice. In 2013, Maine lobstermen caught 126 million pounds of lobster and Canada received nearly 60 million pounds from the state for processing. Industry officials say they need more money and manpower to ensure the state can compete.

"There's a multiplying effect because if the product is produced in Maine, then it's generating work and dollars and taxes," said Luke Holden, owner of Cape Seafood in Saco.

The November bond referendum would dedicate $7 million in public money to Maine seafood and lobster processing. Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he threw his support behind the referendum after meeting with lobster industry workers, who told him the biggest barrier to adding value to Maine's lobster industry is the state's lack of processors.

"You can't have value added when all your processing is in Canada," Jackson said. "It's a big part of our economy and a big part of what we do in our state."

Maine's lobster meat processing industry consists of about 15 companies that processed about 20 million pounds of meat last year. Canada, meanwhile, has about 25 companies dotting provinces including New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and processed about 150 million pounds in 2013.

The meat ends up in store-bought products ranging from frozen tails to pre-packaged lobster rolls and salads.

Canada's industry generates about $600 million in export value every year, according to Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada. Maine officials declined to estimate the state's export value but agreed it's much less, with less volume and much of the product shipped to Canada for processing.

The push for more stateside processing has not gone unnoticed in Canada. Jerry Amirault, president of the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, said as much as 75 percent of processed lobster ends up on the U.S. market, and Canadian processors feel a need to maintain their share of the production.

"We understand the interdependency," Amirault said. "It's a change in circumstance."

Holden, of Cape Seafood, has seen the change develop over time. His father processed lobster in Maine 30 years ago when, he said, the industry had "not a lot of players, not a lot of sophistication, not a lot of rules or regulations." Holden supports the push for the bond.

"It keeps the work and the money in the state versus just catching the lobster in Maine and kicking them up to Canada, which is where the majority of process grade lobsters go," he said.

In St. George, Kyle Murdock opened one of Maine's newest lobster processing businesses — Sea Hag Seafood — in 2010. The facility processed about 900,000 pounds of meat last year and will likely exceed 1 million in 2014, he said.

Murdock said continued growth in Maine's lobster processing sector could be the key to the industry's future.

"It gives you more control of your product," Murdock said. "The Maine taxpayer is spending their tax dollars to market a product that is processed in Canada."