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Environment and Outdoors

Mills announces $10 million in funding for Maine seafood dealers and processors

mills lobster.jpg
Fred Bever
/
Maine Public
Gov. Mills looks on as Annie Tselikis of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association speaks outside Luke’s Lobster in Portland. CEO Luke Holden, right, with Briana Warner, CEO of the fast-growing Atlantic Sea Farms seaweed company.

Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that a $10 million fund to help seafood dealers and processors adapt to the post-pandemic economy.

Seafood sales cratered early in the pandemic, as restaurants closed. But home chefs did start buying a lot more seafood, and dealers — from lobster to seaweed — pivoted to serve that growth market.

Now, the food-service industry is largely recovered, while retail demand for seafood is holding strong.

"It's made a business that was already more complex to run exponentially more expensive," Holden said.

Luke Holden, CEO of Luke's Lobster, joined Governor Mills and other industry leaders outside his flagship Portland restaurant. He said the company is being squeezed between high prices for live lobster at the dock, and the cost of new equipment and processes for making retail products such as lobster bisque.

"A tradeoff for us was getting a cartoner that enabled us to put product in branded boxes, which is what grocery stores wanted for the freezer aisle. And the expense was not investing in a in-house wastewater treatment facility," Holden said.

More processing, he said, means running a lot more water through the company's Saco plant, and that's put sewer bills through the roof. He's one of many business leaders hoping to tap into the $10 million in federal stimulus funds that Mills is dedicating to industry infrastructure investments. Mills said the Department of Marine Resources is developing an application process, and should start making grant awards early in 2022.