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Taking the measure of the lobster industry

Dan Cosby measures a lobster's carapace to see if it's a 'keeper.' Dan Cosby measures a lobster's carapace to see if it's a "keeper." (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)
By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / June 30, 2010

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PENOBSCOT BAY, Maine — Dan Cosby moves his 35-foot lobster boat, Fisher Girl, through Saturday Cove and Little Harbor with a running commentary. He spots beautiful, sunbathing harbor seals. They’re not as innocent as they look, he says. “They know you’re putting bait down. They rob your bait.’’

Cosby, 51, who calls himself Captain Dan, has been lobstering here for 15 years. The ups and downs of the stock market have taken a toll on him and other lobstermen. When the market is down, so is a luxury item like lobster. This week fishermen are getting $5 a pound for lobsters. Maine retailers double the price; the farther you go from the source, the higher the price. The discrepancy is dramatic enough for Cosby’s wife of two years, Amber Heffner, 42, a Chicago native whose background is in technology, to help reinvent his livelihood. They just launched Crate to Plate, modeled after Community Supported Agriculture and Community Supported Fisheries programs, in which consumers buy a share of the farm or a boat before the season and receive the harvest for several months.

Crate to Plate offers customers a chance to buy a trap for a month ($395), a half season ($1,195) or a full season until the end of the year ($1,995). The couple built an interactive website, where you can click to check what’s in your trap. You’re guaranteed 40 lobsters a full season; a lucky trap might yield 60, all of which are yours. Last week for the first time, Cosby and Heffner pulled up lobsters from the bay, layered them with seaweed, paper damp with salty seawater, and frozen gel packs, and called FedEx.

As Cosby moves his boat through the water on this clear June day, he passes Ram Island, named for the sheep residents once raised for wool, and then the bird sanctuary on Flat Island, where he notices an elegant great blue heron. Between attractions, Cosby stops to pull up bright yellow, green, and purple buoys to see what’s in his traps (not much), then re-baits them and puts them back in the water. He points out cottages that a company owned for its executives and now rents to anyone. There’s a house where you can stay if you pull up on your boat with supplies and leave the place the way you found it, a Scientology community, then a cluster of homes owned by people, says Cosby, “who can talk to your dead grandmother.’’

Much of a Maine lobsterman’s catch goes to Canada to be processed, though the state has three processors and a fourth about to start this summer. Today there’s a surplus of lobsters because of strict conservation regulations and because Canadi an processors fell onto hard times when their credit was cut off by Icelandic banks, who financed them.

One of the reasons lobstermen haven’t been more aggressive about selling directly to consumers is that it’s easier to unload a perishable product to one buyer, than to deal with a dozen buyers. Lobstermen who do some selling on the side may be squeezed out by a wholesaler. Here’s how David Casoni, secretary-treasurer of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, explains it: “You’ve got dealers that would say, You want to sell them on the side? Sell them all. Don’t bring me any.’’

In Maine, there are 5,800 commercial lobstermen, many of whom are trying new marketing ideas. “Some go roadside and sell locally,’’ says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the 1,200-member Maine Lobstermen’s Association in Kennebunk. “There are people on Craigslist. Some sell on the Internet.’’

Others have done what Cosby is doing. On Swan’s Island, lobsterman Jason Joyce started renting traps and stopped. “I’m a lobsterman by myself,’’ he says. Joyce now sells a sustainability program with videos shot on his boat for restaurant chains and fish markets to show customers who buy and serve lobsters. They can see the lobsterman notching the tails of female lobsters with eggs with a “V,’’ so anyone who catches them will toss them back. “People don’t understand the work that’s involved, the strategy, the hazards, the risks,’’ he says. “This is more to help market lobsters for people who are already selling.’’

Three years ago, John and Brandon Ready, brothers who own Ready Seafood in Portland, established Catch a Piece of Maine, offering traps for rent for the season; the brothers have a team of lobstermen, one assigned to each trap. They also offer quarterly deliveries and smaller shipments, too.

Massachusetts lobstermen are taking their catch to farmers’ markets and some are selling from their own homes. Lobsterman Rob Martin and his girlfriend, Lori Caron, set up Salty Lou’s Live Lobsters, and market them on their front porch on Route 6A in East Sandwich (open weekends). Caron is involved with Farmers Table, a group of local growers and entrepreneurs who are setting up a market in Hyannis, expected to open this month. A fisherman and a former chef are selling the by-catch in their traps, along with lobsters, direct to restaurants (see related story, Page 21).

The Massachusetts lobster industry is struggling because of warming waters, a situation that has not affected Cape Cod Bay or the waters north of it. Lobsters have moved away from Buzzards Bay and southern New England and headed farther out to sea. Lobstermen may face a 5-year moratorium in those waters, says Casoni of the Lobstermen’s Association. “It’s a potential crisis,’’ he says. “That’s a Mother Nature interference.’’

For other lobstermen — about 800 of the 1,400 commercial licenses are active — the organization is in the midst of a marketing program to encourage them to sell directly to restaurants and consumers.

In Maine, locals can get all the lobsters they want. Demand is up in the summer when tourists are on the coast. The real demand is in the rest of the country, which Cosby and Heffner are trying to tap into.

Cosby’s license lets him haul 800 traps. He runs the Fisher Girl with Jason Batista, 27, a New Bedford native now living in China, Maine. Batista, dressed in orange rubber overalls, orange gloves, and heavy boots, tucks four herrings into an orange mesh sack, spears it with a hook, and baits the traps as they come up. Cosby measures every single crustacean with a “lobster measure,’’ a stainless ruler, to see if they’re large enough to keep.

The lobsterman was raised in Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico and worked as a yacht captain in the south. He met Heffner in an airport when he was going to the Bahamas to run a boat and she was headed there on vacation. He was on a crew of a yacht that sailed to Maine, stayed for a month, and liked it enough to move north from Florida. He sees himself as a guardian of this environment, quickly tossing back egg-laden female lobsters and swinging his boat out of the way to pick up a deflated Mylar balloon. “I once picked up 70,’’ he says. “I hate these things.’’

Cosby’s traps hold plenty of starfish, Jonah crabs, rock crabs, and sea urchins. Urchins aren’t as plump as they will be in the fall. He used to dive for them. “I don’t do that anymore. That market’s fairly gone.’’ He slits open an urchin and offers tastes of the delicious, salty, smooth orange uni on the tip of his knife.

He’s got a few dozen lobsters. Those will go into a “lobster car,’’ a crate anchored to a dock, where they stay in cold sea storage until they’re shipped out. The season gears up this week, when soft-shells have hardened enough to emerge from hiding places in the rocks or mud and return to the bay. Cosby moves from buoy to buoy, tossing almost everything back into the water.

“If I didn’t have any to throw back,’’ he says, “I’d be upset. You fish for the future.’’

Crate to Plate, www.cratetoplate.com Catch a Piece of Maine, www.catchapieceofmaine.com Swan’s Island Rent a Trap, www.swansislandrentatrap.com

Sheryl Julian can be reached at julian@globe.com.