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Pursuing Higher Profits, Maine Lobstermen Unionize

A.J. Higgins
Maine Public
Rock Alley, president of the MLU, offers some advice to a fellow fisherman over the radio at the wheel of the Miss Carmen.

Maine lobstermen have long been known as a fiercely independent lot. But some are looking to the power of unity, in the form of a statewide, catch-to-table co-op. The goal is to harvest a larger and more predictable share of the profits.

It’s 10 a.m. and Rock Alley has already been cruising Washington County’s Sequin’s Passage off Beals Island since a little after daybreak. The 60-year-old Jonesport fishermen tells his two stern men to get ready as he maneuvers his 46-foot, Jarvis Newman lobster boat through some shallow waters to get to his traps.

As the Miss Carmen idles down, one of the men snags the lobster buoy with a gaffer’s hook and pulls it aboard. Alley feeds the trap line through a whining winch on the starboard side that pulls up his traps from the ocean floor.

By noon, Alley has crated nearly 500 pounds of freshly caught lobster at a Beals Island dock. Not so long ago, those lobsters would have been sold to a waiting dealer or nearby local co-op, but Alley’s lobsters are heading directly to a holding pound in Lamoine that is owned and operated by the Maine Lobstering Union.

Alley serves as president of Local 207.

Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public
Maine Public
Rock Alley sorts his catch aboard the Miss Carmen at a Beals Island dock.

“A lot of fishermen out there, they see and hear union, and unions always had a kind of funny taste in a lot of fellows’ mouths, but fishermen have never been union,” Alley said. “I kind of look for it to really take off January.”

The MLU was founded four years ago and was prompted by a glut of lobsters that drove prices down to just $2 a pound. Alley says the union has been growing steadily and now boasts about 500 members and parent ownership in several holding facilities.

It’s not a typical union. Members are required to sell their catch to the MLU at competitive boat prices in exchange for an annual additional dividend payment based on total year-end profits.

Lobsters from the MLU are transported by union truck drivers to the Lamoine holding pound, where union employees sort, crate and eventually load them onto even larger trucks, also driven by union workers.

Union lobster brokers take orders from domestic and global markets with the end goal of eliminating the middle man and getting a larger share of Maine’s $1.5 billion lobster industry.

Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public
Maine Public
Union workers with the Maine Lobstering Union, Local 207 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, sort and crate lobsters ready for shipping at the union's Seal Point pound in Lamoine.

“We want to try and figure out what it is that we can do on all the fronts to make everyone’s lives better,” says David Sullivan, who oversees the eastern district of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the parent of MLU.

Sullivan says he’s confident that the lure of higher earnings will attract a growing number of the state’s 5,000 licensed lobstermen. He says the union is already working with staff at the Lamoine holding pound at Seal Point to provide more employee benefits.

“I mean the machinists union, we’ve been such a fierce voice in the industry, I think that’s why they came to us and I think that we’re going to continue to do that and show that here at Seal Point too,” he says.

MLU members also are hoping that some consumers will look for the union label when choosing their lobster at the market. Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, isn’t so sure.

“I don’t know if the union label will have resonance at that level. I honestly don’t know. Certainly no one has ever told us that it would and certainly we haven’t seen that,” he says.

Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public
Maine Public
Dock workers prepare to load the Miss Carmen with a fresh supply of bait.

The collaborative is managing a multimillion dollar marketing campaign for the state’s lobster industry, and Jacobson says the MLU might want to focus more of its attention on other forces that are spurring consumer interest.

“There are three or four things that are driving menuing and consumer purchase,” said Jacobsen. “The first is seasonality, the second is sustainability, the third is boat-to-table story and the fourth is culinary versatility: what can I do with the product?”

Although Maine’s lobster season has gotten off to a slow start, due to colder than normal water temperatures, Jacobsen and members of the MLU say they are looking ahead to a strong sales in August and September.