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SKF Interview: Linda Bean’s Lobstering in the Future

Creating new ways to keep an old industry thriving long into the future. That’s very much the challenge with Maine’s lobster industry these days. In October 2008, for example, Governor John Baldacci created a new Task Force dedicated to that purpose. But for awhile now, at her wharves in the coastal Towns of Port Clyde and Tenants Harbor in Knox, County, Linda Bean is already a success at putting in place new ideas for Maine’s lobster industry, all under the banner of “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine.”

I visited Linda in early October 2008 at her Port Clyde wharf, a beautiful spot. I felt as if I was walking in a movie set designed as Everyman’s vision of a Maine coastal town. My instincts are good. Linda Bean’s general manager points to me to nearby Marshall Point lighthouse seen in the movie “Forrest Gump.” If I had come for this interview a day sooner, he says, I would have seen Andrew Wyeth waiting on the dock for a launch to take him home.

Linda Bean’s wharf, Port Clyde, Maine.

When Linda Bean arrives we say hello, shake hands, then walk out onto the wharf where I start learning more of Linda Bean’s idea for “adding value to lobster,” and “looking at lobstering in the future.”

Linda Bean first visited this Port Clyde wharf when it was owned/operated by David Larsen of the local Atwood family. Bean approached Mr. Larsen, saying, “I don’t suppose you want to sell this place, but if you ever do, I wish you would keep me in mind.” Larsen took Bean’s business card, saying he would keep her in mind.

Nine years later Bean’s home phone rang. Mrs. Larsen was calling. It had been so long, Bean told me, at first she wasn’t sure what the caller was talking about. Then it sank in. The Port Clyde wharf was for sale.

For six months, Linda Bean went to work at the wharf learning how the entire operation works. “There are two businesses here, really,” Bean said. “Buying lobsters and selling lobsters and lobster products.”

Bean has put in place at her wharves two “planning ahead” innovations – a lobster pound and refrigeration units – giving strength to two weak spots in Maine’s lobster industry.

Catching lobsters in traps without bait has a success rate equal to catching fish without baiting fishhooks. Yet, thanks to government regulations on what kinds of bait fish can be caught where and when, coupled with no way to preserve bait fish for very long, lobstermen were sometimes grounded when they couldn’t get lobster bait.

In a classic why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? moment, Linda Bean put in at her wharves refrigeration units. The unit I walked through at Port Clyde contained several large tubs of bait fish, salted and kept cool so Bean’s wharf and the fishermen doing business there can carry-on working in otherwise lean times.

Linda Bean also repaired an earth-and-wood dam at the mouth of a cove at the wharf. The dam allows a natural ebb-and-flow of the tide so the cove can serve as a lobster pound holding up to 80,000 pounds of living lobsters. This innovation allows for a fresh lobster inventory when before, fresh lobsters were hard or impossible to come by.

Linda Bean’s lobster pound viewed from its earth-and-wood dam.

I learned Maine lobstermen and lobster wharf owners work without contracts. Lobstermen bring their lobsters to wharf operators they like best. After introducing herself in person to local and nearby lobstermen – Bean waited. Would the lobstermen come? Yes. Lobstermen can get at Bean’s wharf boat fuel and bait at cost. “I don’t make a profit on fuel and bait,” Bean said. Lobstermen bring their catch to the wharf. Their lobsters are weighed and stored. Lobstermen are paid for their lobsters at each week’s end.

With a way to receive and store fresh Maine lobsters secured, what’s next for Linda Bean? For starters she is marketing fresh lobsters, lobster rolls, lobster stew, and other seafood products under the “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine” brand. Bringing new ideas to an old industry. “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine” Live Lobsters are, according to Bean’s web site, “deliverable to your home or business. You can get [live lobsters] no fresher.” The refrigeration unit, the lobster pound, and her working relationship with lobstermen assure that claim.

“Sustainability” is a common buzzword these days. Customers want to be sure they’re not dining on Maine’s last lobster. “We have sustainable lobster industry in Maine,” Linda Bean said. “Since the 1930s Maine lobsterman have been using sustainable practices.” She mentions Maine’s practice of not harvesting certain female or baby lobsters. Maine lobster traps are designed so baby lobsters can escape! “Not all states do as Maine does. The forbearance of Maine fishermen is giving us what we have today,” Bean said.

With that in mind, each Linda Bean fresh lobster has a tag telling where the lobster was caught and the assurance: “Authentic Maine Lobster, Wild Caught in U.S.A. by Maine Fishermen Using Sustainable Practices.” Bean is also in the process of seeing to it her lobsters achieve the “highly desirable eco label of the Marine Stewardship Council in London.” The European market demands the MSC label. And Wal-Mart, which Linda tells me is “the biggest buyer of seafood in the world,” won’t buy seafood without the MSC label as of year 2012.

Will “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine” Lobster Rolls become the item hungry Americans think of after hamburgers and hot dogs? That’s the plan! Lobster: The Next American Sandwich! Talk about a boost for the lobster industry into the future. Bean’s is a quarter pound of Maine lobster from her wharf made into a special salad and served on a hot dog roll. Linda says, “It stirs your primal senses.”

Linda’s Bean’s products are available on her web site. A press release says her products “are being positioned for green and sustainable markets nationwide, including supermarkets, club stores, national restaurant chains and independent restaurants.” You’ll also find Bean lobster rolls and such for sale at take-out counters in Freeport and Rockland. Plus, Linda Bean has plans to open “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine” franchises in Florida serving Bean’s food along with other Maine produced foods on the menu.

My time with Linda Bean ends at the Port Clyde General Store. Inside, apart from modern appliances, the General Store looks much the same, I bet, as it did a century ago. Linda leads me to a fish tank full of her lobsters being sold for $3.50 per pound during Help Maine’s Lobster Industry Day. Up-and-down Maine’s coast others are selling lobsters at low rates, encouraging people to buy, to help out Maine’s lobstermen and their families.

I suspect if I asked Linda ten years ago what she thought she’d be doing in October 2008 she would not have described herself an innovator in Maine’s lobster industry. In telling me how she got started at the lobster wharf, Linda said, “We keep being reborn.” That is, we find ourselves on one life track then – poof! – we’re on a brand new life track.

Linda Bean is smart and business-savvy. More than that, I saw in her deep respect for, humility toward, Maine lobstermen and their families, and the invaluable traditions these Maine families will carry into the future.

I can’t imagine a better champion for Maine’s lobster industry.