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Special Feature: Urban seafood processing? Get outta here!

Companies recognize the value of urban waterfronts in fueling a changing industry

By Melissa Wood
September 01, 2013

Take a five-minute walk down India Street in Portland, Maine, and you’ll pass local chain Coffee By Design, Micucci’s Italian grocery store and Benkay Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar. At the end, cross over Commercial Street to the waterfront, walk past the terminal for Casco Island Ferry Lines to reach Ready Seafood and about a quarter of a million lobsters on the Maine State Pier.

Since 2009 Ready, a wholesale lobster buyer and shipper, has been neighboring the fine-dining restaurants, pubs, boutiques and hotels that dominate Portland’s waterfront. The company announced this summer it will be more than doubling its space in the Portland Ocean Terminal to 24,000 square feet, which also doubles its lobster-holding capacity to about half a million. 

As it grows, Ready will have company. In 2014, Shucks Maine Lobster from Richmond, Maine, will open a processing plant as part of a 15-year lease developing 19,000 square feet on the same pier. John Hathaway, Shucks president, says his company’s move to the city will help it capitalize on lobster’s potential as a value-added product.

The development bucks national trends. Seafood processing is mostly tucked away in remote places, offshore in factory ships or driven out of the country entirely by the lure of cheap foreign labor. At the same time, working waterfronts are being crowded out by high rents and other types of development. Here and elsewhere, waterfront is not only vital for marine industries but also is a desirable place to live. According to the National Symposium on Working Waterfronts, the population in the nation’s coastal areas increased by almost 50 percent from 1970 to 2010.

“Every time I travel up and down the East Coast — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida — I love the water so I always visit coastal areas,” says Brendan Ready, co-founder of Ready Seafood with his brother, John. “It’s hard to find a place like Portland that’s been able to keep a balance of a real nitty-gritty working waterfront and the culture of the arts and good food. The easy way is just to develop and put the working waterfront in the backseat and develop hotels, restaurants, resorts.”

City sites 

Four years ago the Maine State Pier was up for competing $100 million-plus development projects but both fell through when the economy fizzled. The controversial proposals reflected Portland’s changing waterfront: It has long been a fishing port, but in recent years its economy has shifted from industrial to condominiums and tourist dollars.  

With the nature of its waterfront shifting, planners updated the city zoning code in 2010 to help balance uses: Although it allowed more space for non-marine uses those renters are required to contribute to an investment fund to help support infrastructure improvements for the working waterfront.

Today Portland’s waterfront continues to be in transition. It was once the center of Maine’s groundfish industry, which has seen its fleet shrink from about 350 boats in the 1990s to about 50 today. Recently, the city’s planning board granted the owners of the former Cumberland Cold Storage building on Commercial Street to rent to non-marine tenants after they were not able to find a marine user for space reserved for them by zoning. 

But on most days a drive down Commercial Street still offers a whiff of fish. The waterfront street is home to Bristol Seafood, North Atlantic, Portland Shellfish Co., Cozy Harbor and Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, which made Portland its center of North American operations earlier this year. 

For Ready, the expansion will provide more capacity and efficiency. The new space will feature a spray-shower holding tank system that allows the company to hold more live lobsters in a smaller area. It also keeps them alive longer, which is a benefit in shipping to overseas markets like Asia and in scheduling product for its processing operation, Maine Seafood Ventures, in nearby Scarborough.

“Right now we’ve outgrown the space in the amount we can ship weekly,” says Ready.

John and Brendan Ready, 32 and 31, respectively, began their seafood careers early. Both were running their own lobster boats and traps by age 9. They began the company, which has grown to more than 50 employees, in 2004. The urban location not only provides the company access to that workforce but also an airport, interstate highway as well as the city’s restaurants and artistic culture.

“I think it’s pretty amazing when 75 percent of your workforce can walk down to work,” says Ready, who handles international sales. When customers visit they can experience the industry here by walking local docks, touring facilities, meeting fishermen as they land their catch and enjoying a nice meal afterward. 

For their part, Ready says the company works hard to be a good city neighbor.

“Seafood companies have always been almost exiled because they’re known for being loud and smelly. We take pride in keeping a clean, good-smelling place to work. It helps create a good fit.”

Making it 

Like crabs in Baltimore, shrimp in New Orleans and salmon in Alaska, lobster is iconic in Maine; lately it’s also been abundant. Landings have exploded in recent years, with a record-breaking 123 million pounds in 2012. But although the catch was 18 million pounds greater than 2011, its $331 million value was a decrease of $3.7 million from the previous year. As a result, Maine lobstermen aren’t happy with prices they’re getting on the dock, which dropped from $3.19 in 2011 to $2.69 in 2012, on average. 

The industry and state have been working to make changes. In March, after a six-year assessment, the Maine lobster fishery earned Marine Stewardship Council certification. In June the state legislature approved a bill that would fund a $3 million-plus marketing campaign paid for by surcharges on licensing fees for lobster harvesters, wholesalers and processors. Maine Gov. Paul LePage declared August to be lobster month and announced that he would be sending every U.S. governor a lobster. 

Processing has been growing in the state as well with new plants opening in St. George, Prospect Harbor and Saco. Previously, most Maine lobsters would be sent to Canada for processing, a practice that sparked protests from Eastern Canada’s lobstermen who last year blocked trucks from Maine, blaming their low prices on the additional glut.

As Maine lobster enters a new era, Hathaway believes the visibility and heritage Portland offers is important for his company’s growth.

“We’re pretty hidden right now. We converted an old shoe factory in Richmond into a processing plant. It’s working out nicely but we’re missing one element, the smell of the sea,” he says. “Story is important in the Maine lobster business. We feel that being a small part of the Portland working waterfront heritage gives us authenticity we need to tell our own story of innovation.”

Shucks originally wanted to be in Portland but at the time rents were too high for the start-up. “Luckily, Mayor [Michael] Brennan, a politician I have known and respected for a long time, was campaigning door to door in last year’s election. He happened to stop at our COO Charlie Langston’s home. He asked Charlie’s wife if there was anything she was interested in to improve life in Portland. She asked the mayor to help bring Shucks to Portland so that her husband wouldn’t have to commute and could spend more time with their kids,” says Hathaway. 

The mayor didn’t give them special treatment, he says, but worked hard with other city staff and politicians to preserve working waterfront and help the move happen. It’s an effort, he says, that will pay off for both the city and the lobster industry: Hathaway says there’s tremendous potential for the raw lobster meat market: Shucks is selling food, not a live animal. Being in Portland is important in making that shift happen, he believes.

“Yes, there are many other places we could go that are far less expensive. But no place tells the story as well as the Portland working waterfront. The energy and synergy is tremendous,” he says. In Portland it seems that lobster and city culture are the perfect combination. 

“With the tremendous foodie scene and innovative chefs like Sam Hayward, Steve Curry, Chris Gould and many, many more; with the innovative young Maine lobster entrepreneurs like John Jordan at Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, Luke Holden at Cape Seafood and Luke’s Lobster, and John and Brendan Ready at Ready [Seafood]; and many more energetic Portland people, there was no question that we wanted to be a small part of that universe,” says Hathaway. “Cheap rent isn’t the only reason to be in business.”

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 

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