Major Lobster Market Upheaval in 2017

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Winter fishing offshore. More and large fishing boats are fishing later in the season in federal waters. Joel Woods photo

damaging government initiatives, natural forces, and fishery circumstances like bait prices.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a trade agreement between the European Union and Canada that was implemented in September, made live Maine lobster 8 percent more expensive than Canadian lobster in its first year, and processed Maine lobster 20 percent more expensive in five years.

“That’s about 20 million pounds we lost,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do except try to find other markets.”

A recent agreement to renegotiate the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement also caused disruption, he said. And Hurricane Harvey, in August, shut down Houston and other metropolitan areas in Texas and Florida for a month, making it impossible to ship lobster there.

Operational in 2014, the MLMC is funded by Maine lobster harvesters, dealers and processors through a license surcharge. Funding in 2014 was $750,000; for each of 2016 through 2018, it’s $2.25 million. Total investment is $6.77 million for the five years.

Weber Shandwick developed a marketing program to identify Maine soft-shell lobster as “new shell.” The program has focused on chefs, media, and consumers.

“Why chefs?” Jacobson said. “When I was a kid, the most famous chef was Chef Boyardee. Now, we’ve got the food channel, rock star chefs, who set the trends for what people eat in restaurants. If we can get them to talk about lobster, that helps.”

MLMC focused on U.S. markets, as opposed to overseas, as a more efficient use of dollars. Also, U.S. consumers are looking for American-made trap-to-table stories, and the majority of influential chefs and media are U.S.-based, he said.

The MLMC developed a new website and social channels; built an online community and a library of photos and videos; engaged key food and industry media and influencers to share the industry’s story; introduced Maine new shell lobster to key audiences through one-on-one meetings with top chefs, conferences, and culinary events; and crated educational resources for culinary and dealer use in domestic and international markets.


 

The majority of
influential chefs and
media are U.S.-based.

– Jacobsen, MLMC


 

“We focus on trying to make people aware of Maine lobsters,” he said. “What we learned is that there’s a phenomenal amount of ignorance about Maine lobster. Our No. 1 video, of chefs and culinary professionals, is how to steam a lobster. The best chefs in the country don’t know how to steam a lobster. It’s the only thing that comes to restaurants that’s still alive….It showed us that education is a real need.”

He continued, “In 2015, we went to a lot of events, and we brought lobstermen with us. Every time we put a lobsterman with a chef, something good happened—the chef wanted to menu Maine lobster. So the question is, how do we scale that interaction?”

To do that, MLMC created an events program called Maine After Midnight, with the timing designed to accommodate typical chef working hours.

“We invited chefs we knew, media, lobstermen, gave taste tests, and showed the difference between hard and new shell,” he said.

Swan’s Island lobster fishermen and Zone B Council member Jason Joyce said he attended a Maine After Midnight event held in San Francisco. He said that he and other lobstermen talked with various chefs and visited a number of restaurants. Only one chef had ever tasted soft shell lobster.

“They couldn’t believe how good it was,” Joyce said. We conveyed something that made them think, You know what, we’d like to sell more lobster.”

The initiatives reached about 3,000 chefs, said Jacobson.

“When we got to these markets, we tried to take over the town,” Jacobson said. “We did chef training, put chefs and lobstermen on radio and TV. And we’d get stories for days.” In Atlanta, he learned that a seafood distributor had been contacted by 22 chefs, the day after the event, who wanted to order Maine new shell lobster.

According to Jacobson’s data, the marketing program:

• reached 25 million social media users—130 times the number of readers of USA Today;

• generated more than 5 million likes, comments, clicks, and shares;

• drove 2.5 million visitors to MLMC’s website;

• increased social media mentions of “Maine lobster” by 433 percent since efforts began;

• secured 3.2 billion media impressions with an ad value of $21 million.


 

“They couldn’t believe
how good it was.

– Jason Joyce, lobsterman,
Swan’s Island


 

The level of online conversation about Maine lobster, between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2017, significantly exceeded levels of other commodity boards for California avocados, Prince Edward Island mussels, and wild American shrimp; and is nearly on par with Alaskan seafood.

One of the challenges with tracking progress, he said, is the lack of data throughout the industry.

“I can’t tell you how much people pay for product through the supply chain,” he said. “The only data we have is on the boat, and it changes hands six times from boat to plate.” He added, “There’s got to be a way to capture that to make this a more lucrative fishery.”

According to the third-party audit, conducted by Don Stacks, professor emeritus of corporate communication and public relations at the University of Miami, “Based on an end-to-end campaign analysis, the MLMC campaign represents top-notch public relations strategy, tactics, and outcomes. It has prepared theMLMC to move to the next stage—sustaining relevance and initiating actions and audience advocacy.”

Initiatives in 2018 and beyond, wrote Stacks, include:

• continue educating chefs

• sustain engagement with influential domestic audiences

• tap into consumers’ desire for high-quality food that’s convenient and customizable

• drive awareness and education through the supply chain

• produce educational assets and opportunities that promote a deeper level of understanding of the product and the fishery

• develop deeper measurements leveraging industry data

• scale awareness efforts into international markets

The Zone B Council voted unanimously to support the reauthorization of the MLMC. Maine’s other six zones also supported it, although not all of the votes were unanimous.

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