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Tess Vigeland: A lot of small businesses are feeling the pinch of the sour economy. Rising fuel and food prices make it tough to eke out profits when the margin is small in the first place. Lobstermen –and women — are on the list of jobs in deep water. The annual catch is down. And market prices are stagnant. Reporter Lenora Chu found two brothers who are clawing back by inviting customers to adopt-a-lobster-trap.
Lenora Chu: It’s a beautiful spring day on the Maine waterfront. John and Brendan Ready are heading out on the boat to check their lobster traps. They’re hoping for a good catch. problem is, the lobsters aren’t cooperating.
John Ready: Plenty of seaweed, but no lobsters in this one.
Maine’s annual catch was down 15 percent last year.
John Ready: Got crabs on this one. Struck out. Struck out two traps in a row, no lobsters.
Add to that trouble at the marketplace. Prices for lobster have been relatively flat for the last two decades. Meanwhile, John Ready says, the costs of doing business have skyrocketed.
John Ready: Fuel is directly related to bait costs. So, you have fuel going up, bait going up, dockage, that’s going up. You can see the writing on the wall. It’s an economic mishap waiting to happen.
The Readys, who are seafood distributors as well as fishermen, knew they needed a different business model. Brendan Ready:
Brendan Ready: If you want to be here for 40 years, you can’t keep doing something the same way, hoping it’s going to change. You have to be proactive.
Their plan is called Catch a Piece of Maine. Here’s how it works: Fork over three grand and get your own trap for a year. Every lobster that wanders in gets FedExed to your doorstep. The kicker is, you get your own private lobsterman. The same guy checks your trap every week and calls you after each shipment. You can even watch him hauling your bounty on an Internet video.
Brendan Ready: We just want to put a face to your harvest is what we want to do.
You’re guaranteed 40 lobsters a year — more if your trap is bountiful. And every shipment comes with lobster bibs, cooking instructions and a helping of steamer clams and mussels. Accountability’s also important. You can check your online account anytime to see what’s in your trap. John Ready says it’s all about knowing where your food comes from.
John Ready: Customers today are very, very concerned with sustainability, being green and traceability. It just so happens that’s exactly what we’re showing.
The Readys have sold 200 traps so far and aim to double that by year’s end. For the lobstermen, the incentive to join up is clear. The Readys will pay 40 cents more per pound than the going rate. Lobsterman Curt Brown:
Curt Brown: Lobstermen tend to be very finicky. There’s a lot of different options of where to sell your catch, so a price difference of a nickel per pound is enough to make any lobsterman jump from one dealer to the other.
Brown and seven other independent lobstermen have joined up, with many more on the wait list. The business plan seems to be working, but lobster historian Colin Woodard says one innovative idea won’t save an industry.
Colin Woodard: The Readys are talking about working with up to 400 traps. It’s not going to be a solution that’s going to buoy up all 7,000 lobstermen in the state of Maine and the 3.2 million traps that are out there in the water catching lobster.
And competitors say Catch a Piece of Maine is aimed at people with money to burn. Peter McAleney of New Meadows Seafood in Portland says he can overnight a lobster dinner for a lot less.
Peter McAleney: These kids come up with a real great idea, you know, you own your own trap, but there’s only so many consumers that can afford these type of niches.
The Readys say they know an industry doesn’t change overnight. But for now, they’ve found the niche that works for them. Back on the boat, things seem to be picking up.
Ready: This one right here has a notch. this has a “V” in its tail — that means we can’t keep it. It’s illegal.
One notch means it’s an egg-producing female. A lobsterman caught it once and marked it forever. Throwing her back in the water helps ensure plenty of baby lobsters will be crawling around in the future.
And that future, the Readys say, is looking up.
I’m Lenora Chu, for Marketplace Money.
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