Maine Lobster Redefined Calendar Islands Lobster Company

Sweet, succulent, slightly briny, Maine lobster is craved by seafood lovers throughout the world. Harvested from the cold, clear waters of the Gulf of Maine, the crustaceans are renowned for their characteristic large claws and meaty tails. Not only are they a highly sought delicacy, the animals are sustainably harvested by a self-regulating fishery that has supported generations of families. For the people in the industry, it’s more than a business; it’s a way of life. But lobstering, like any kind of fishing, is difficult and filled with uncertainty. To take control of their lives and livelihood, a group of lobstermen from Chebeague, a tiny island in Casco Bay off the coast of Maine, joined forces to create an innovative business, Calendar Islands Lobster Company, that maintains an active role in every step of the process from harvesting the animals from the ocean to delivering them to diners’ plates in a variety of ways.

“Lobster is all wild caught, so you never know how much you’re going to catch [or] when you’re going to catch it.” John Jordan

Standing at the helm of his vessel, Storm Walker, which he is steering into Casco Bay past Chebeague Island on a bright, crisp autumn day, John Jordan notes, “It’s not a bad office.” In fact, this 39-foot boat is one of Jordan’s two offices. The other is a string of rooms in the Portland fish pier that serves as Calendar Islands Lobster’s corporate headquarters. Jordan was the driving force behind the business, formed in 2004, that brought together individual lobstermen to operate as a sort of co-op, with a goal of receiving maximum value for their catch by selling in volume. They started with 12 members; now they have 38, drawn primarily from Chebeague Island but coming from as far as Portland and Freeport.

Jordan grew up spending summers at his grandparents’ home on Chebeague Island. When he was in college, he worked on the island’s lobster boats during summer breaks. After he graduated, he gravitated back to the life and the ocean he loved. “You get wired into doing this,” he says. Now, during the season—June through December for him (some people start in May; some go out year-round)— each week he goes out lobstering three days and spends three days in the office, where he oversees branding and market development for Calendar Islands Lobster, as well as other issues that arise. Two of his sons, [ages?], share a boat and have 100 traps. While Jordan says he is not actively encouraging them to join the business, “It’s good for them to learn to work.”

“Lobstermen getting along together is a difficult thing because they’re so independent,” says Ernie Burgess, a Calendar Islands director. At 74 Burgess is something of a senior statesman, a Chebeague Islander who has been lobstering for 64 years. The company “started out of necessity,” he says, “thinking we were going to improve our lot and [be] beneficial to the whole community. John [Jordan] deserves a lot of credit for trying to think about how our lives could all be different if we could think differently about how to go about our business,” he says.

Now scaling back —fishing from June through December instead of year-round—Burgess says he has “done anything and everything,” by which he means clam digging, offshore fishing, dragging, shrimping, gill netting, scalloping and lobstering. “You used to have to do a lot of things to survive,” he says, adding, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“The idea that you can take from a resource and not kill it off is new for the industry. We saw it when we saw the ground fishery collapse.” Ernie Burgess

For the men who go out on the water (the vast majority are men, according to Jordan), the day-to-day practice is no different than it was when they each worked independently, explains Alex Todd, a Calendar Islands Board member who grew up on Chebeague and got his lobster license when he was six years old. But the company’s presence, he says, “brought the price up for everyone else.”

A 10th generation fisherman, Todd fishes for scallops during the winter. He also is the only lobsterman from Chebeague who still has a groundfish license and spends some of his time fishing for menhaden and, occasionally, tuna. He has two sons, 15 and 19, who share a boat with a few traps. He thinks the younger son will get into the business. The older one, now in college, is still a question mark.

In 2009, seeking to further control their business, Calendar Islands Lobster began processing their lobster and overseeing development of the meat into gourmet products. “In the beginning, we went fishing and sold to lobster dealers. Then we started our own group, had a lot of fishermen putting product together and got a little bit of leverage from volume,” says Jordan. “As fishermen, we [asked ourselves], what can we do to play a better role in representing our products?”

Calendar Islands works with four processors in Maine, using high-pressure processing, which maximizes food safety and loosens the bond of meat to shell, making it easier to remove raw meat. Then, using recipes from chef partners, the company oversees development of products from lobster puff pastry to lobster quiche and other gourmet items that it sells in addition to quick-frozen lobster just off the boat, whole, tails or claw and knuckle meat.

From his vantage point—“I’m getting a little bit antique,” he quips—Burgess believes branching into prepared foods adds value for the entire community. “A few years ago when there was a lobster glut people saw the wheel was broken. Investors [in Calendar Islands Lobster] wanted to help the whole industry beyond ‘go get lobsters and dump them…’ beyond what dealers are willing to pay you. I do think it does have some market influence,” says Burgess.

“The industry is used to this day-by-day approach,” says Jordan. “This is a different way of thinking. Let’s take a long-term approach.”

A Self-Regulating Fishery

Unlike other fisheries that are regulated by external agencies, the Maine lobster fishery is self-regulating, following practices that were put in place in the late 1800s to protect both the lobster population and the state’s fishermen and women. Specifically:

  • Lobsters less than 3 1/4 or over 5 inches must be released
  • Egg-carrying female lobsters must be released; fishermen cut a v-shaped notch in their tail flippers so if they are caught again they will be easily identifiable. This protects breeding females.
  • Sometimes, fishermen throw back roughly 80% of what they catch, live and unharmed

The Maine lobster industry has had boon years recently, but the 2017 catch was down slightly from 2016. A forward-looking business approach is the best way to take as much control as possible of a business that is largely dependent on nature. And to offer diners more of one of the world’s most delicious foods in more delicious ways.

“We want to elevate lobster because we think it’s one of the best foods on the planet.” John Jordan


Photos by Melissa DiPalma • Text by Andrea Pyenson

© Hingeline 2018

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