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Lobster’s New Champion

Lobstering never figured in Linda Bean’s life plan. She got into the business fortuitously, rather late in life and through the back door. The granddaughter of L.L. Bean, founder of the renowned Freeport, Maine, sporting goods emporium, she sits on the board of the her grandfather’s company, enjoying the wealth and power that come with the connection. Her extremely conservative views are well known. She ran for Congress some years back but was defeated overwhelmingly. Twice.

But lobstering?

It happened like this: Three years ago, at the end of an admittedly sticky divorce, Bean was offered a house she admired for its sweeping view of the western harbor of Port Clyde, a tiny fishing village (pop. 1,000). It was as pretty a Maine view as you could imagine, dotted with lobster boats and a multitude of islands with rocky ledges, spruce trees, pointed firs and, of course, gorgeous sunsets.

But if she wanted the house, Bean discovered, she had to take on an adjacent lobster wharf, a buying station where lobster boats tie up to unload their catch and restock with bait and gas. And with the wharf came a two-acre pound, a natural saltwater storage pond where live lobsters are kept until they’re ready to ship to market. Unexpectedly, at a stage in life when most people are retired from the fray, Bean found herself in the lobster business. Like most Mainers, she knew precious little about the bugs, as fishermen call them, beyond how to cook, shuck and eat them.

Now, three years later, she’s an expert. She’s expanded, adding two more lobster wharves, in nearby Tenants Harbor and on the island of Vinalhaven, as well as a large refrigerated bait warehouse (necessary, she explained, because of constant price fluctuations), a lobster processing plant, six food service operations and a frozen-food business that is currently producing two-serving portions of lobster stew. And she plans to build out both the eating operations and the frozen-food line, launching other Maine-based seafood products such as crab and shrimp.

This year, Bean told me, she moved 3 million pounds of lobster from her three wharves. “That was one-twentieth of the state’s total supply,” she said, pride evident in her voice. (According to Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, the state’s total lobster catch in 2008 came to 70 million pounds, so Bean was only slightly exaggerating.)

One Maine Icon Adopts Another

In Maine, Bean’s family is almost as iconic as lobsters. Leon Leonwood Bean died more than 40 years ago, but he is still held up as an example of probity combined with business acumen that is especially valued in Maine. His granddaughter seems to have inherited his marketing genes, even if it took a while for them to emerge. She has set out to reform and update the way Maine lobster is handled, marketed and promoted, from the trap to the dinner table. If she succeeds, it may change the way of life of the deeply traditional, somewhat secretive community of Maine lobster fishermen who represent an industry that is almost unchanged within the last 50 years.

Called, without a smidgen of false modesty, “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine,” Bean’s company is a big umbrella, the most visible part of which is her restaurants. Locals complain that the price is high, but tourists and out-of-towners happily sample Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Rolls, generously filled with herby lobster salad. You could say the chain stretches from Maine to Florida, but in truth it is mostly in Maine and Delray Beach, Fla., with a franchise operation in Hull, Mass., south of Boston. The outlets vary in size from a carry-out lobster shack opposite the entrance to L.L. Bean’s mother ship in Freeport, to a full-scale restaurant in Camden that also serves hot dogs and whoopie pies, another Maine icon.

Over lobster salad with local greens at her Camden restaurant, Bean told me her goal is to create “a vertical operation, from the wharf to the table.” She also supplies restaurants, retailers and mail-order customers with live lobsters, each one sporting a tag that traces the critter back to a specific port, whether Port Clyde, Tenants Harbor or Vinalhaven.

Branding Maine lobster? Isn’t it already a brand? “I dislike lobsters being called Maine lobsters when they aren’t!” she insisted. “Maine lobster” is a generic term for Homarus americanus, American lobster, which ranges from Labrador as far south as North Carolina. Much of what is sold outside the state as Maine lobster never swam in these pristine waters. And much Maine lobster is, or was until recently, sold as “product of Canada.” Bean’s lobster tag is central to her strategy, she explains, noting that the tag guarantees that they are authentic Maine lobster, wild caught by Maine fishermen using sustainable practices.

Promoting Good Stewardship

A characteristic of lobsters is that they molt periodically, shedding their old hard shells and acquiring new softer ones. Almost everyone, from fishermen to gourmets, agrees that a hard-shell lobster is tastier, sweeter, more firm-textured, just all-round better to eat. But for visitors to Maine, who experience lobster only in summertime, soft-shell lobsters are what’s available. They’re easy to eat and easier to harvest in balmy summer weather rather than during the treacherous winter months. Between 70 and 80 percent of Maine’s annual harvest are soft shell lobsters.

The fragile shedders don’t ship easily, so those that aren’t consumed by natives and tourists are processed. Until recently, this meant a bounty for Canada where lobster processing plants, funded by Icelandic banks and mostly located in the maritimes, took an astonishing 60 percent of Maine’s annual lobster harvest, according to Carl Wilson, chief lobster biologist of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. But Iceland’s financial collapse has led to tough times for Canadian processors, which of course translates to tougher times for Maine lobstermen, and historically low prices that have many threatening to give up altogether.

Enter Linda Bean and a few colleagues in the business who have combined forces to request certification of Maine lobster from the Marine Stewardship Council, an organization headquartered in the U.K. that builds consumer awareness by certifying the sustainability of various fisheries, from northeast Atlantic sea bass to Pacific albacore to Alaskan cod. As an influential NGO, the Marine Stewardship Council has grown to dominate the debate about wild fisheries and seafood.

The initial certification process, still incomplete, is arduous, but once concluded, the next step will be a public comment period. It’s not at all certain that Maine’s lobster industry, including dealers, processors, and harvesters, will accept MSC recommendations. (MSC certification would be for all Maine lobster, not just Bean’s.) Fishermen have sometimes been characterized as a conservative, suspicious and secretive lot, hostile to change and mistrustful of outsiders. Already, there is grumbling: What does a British organization know about Maine lobster? But no less a power than Walmart, possibly the largest single seafood buyer in the world, has committed to stocking only MSC-certified seafood by 2011. So if Maine lobster wants a share in that market, it will have to submit.

Certification will mean that any lobster sold anywhere with the distinctive MSC logo will be guaranteed to be from Maine waters, wild-harvested by sustainable methods that are responsible for the current healthy state of the resource and traceable to its origins if there are problems.

The Maine lobster industry has been in the doldrums this year with the lowest seasonal dockside prices in memory. Yet because of the state’s tradition of rigidly respected rules governing the harvest, there are plenty of lobsters available. Matching lobsters to the market is not rocket science, but it takes ingenuity, determination and a willingness to move with the times. If anyone can shift this industry forward, it may well be the feisty granddaughter of Maine’s leading retailer. Even if Linda Bean’s lobster enterprise never reaches the financial heights of L.L. Bean, she’s determined to make a mark. Already she’s forcing Maine’s lobstermen to take a good, hard look at where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.