Frigid 5.a.m. mornings are when the winter waters of the Bay of Fundy are at their coldest, and it’s when lobster fishermen head out to ply the icy depths and bring in one of Canada’s premium catches, the Atlantic Lobster.
The Canadian catch outranks that of any other country and represents a Quebec and Maritime export industry valued at over a billion dollars annually. But it has room to grow. With recent trade deals and logistics expansions, new markets are opening up in Asia and the opportunity to sell to Europe is increasing.
According to Patrick (P.J.) Swim, now is the time to better situate the Canadian Atlantic Lobster brand to the refined tastes of these global consumers. Swim has been boosting the premium Canadian lobster brand through work with lobster boat captains and crew, processors and exporters, through a proposed specialty tagging campaign and via the website Lobster.ca.
Swim has been involved in the lobster industry in various roles for 24 years and cites a family background of working with lobster for five generations. With Lobster.ca, he says his mandate is “to band and brand together.”
He seeks to bring together “the businesses and grass roots people that survive by the industry, which is said to be, according to statistics, in excess of 35,000 Canadian lobster industry participants – whether its captains, crewmen, truck drivers, packers, [or] graders.”
In Canada, lobster seasons are staggered across 45 separate lobster fisheries, which collectively represent the most valuable fishery in Canada. With the exception of one fishery closed for conservation and one offshore fishery, these Lobster Fishing Areas (LFA) are the domain of lobstermen who set out to fish in small inshore boats. Unlike nearby Maine which fishes lobster year round, in Canada only the offshore fishery (92-km or further beyond shore) is conducted year-round. It is also one of the longest regulated, with some of the first conservation efforts dating back well over a century.
Canada has over 10,000 licensed harvesters in the lobster fishery, and each of those captains then has an investment in his ship approaching a million dollars, further demonstrating its significance to the economy.
Swim points to three key areas that affect the success of commercial lobster exports and sales. These include logistics of transporting lobster products but especially live lobster, to market. Handling, cooking and eating the lobster itself requires a bit of a learning curve and not everyone is familiar with how to open or best prepare it. Lastly, there is the consumer’s perception of the product and that’s a crucial focus for Swim’s Lobster.ca branding to address.
While there processed and tinned product available, Lobster is generally a live product when it is sold. The challenge of getting live lobsters to foreign markets is therefore fundamental to growing trade. Recent trade deals with Europe, China and Korea — among others — are opening up vast potential but transportation and logistics must still be enhanced.
Much of the region’s lobster flies out of Halifax’s Stanfield International Airport but the overflow goes stateside. “Because we can’t get them out at the airport, we have to ship them down to the States in crates and they go out from there — and we lose a [percentage] of the margin,” Swim explains. “It’s changing piece by piece, but Boston has 101 airlines to negotiate with and we’ve got one. Now we’ve got Korean Airlines coming in and we’ve got a bigger tarmac. Things are changing.”
With the recently added Korean Airlines flight, lobster can be shipped directly to Incheon, South Korea with one stopover in Alaska. From Incheon, they can take advantage of connections to Beijing and across Asia. Halifax also offers a weekly flight to Hamburg, Germany and flights to London’s Heathrow Airport whereby lobster can be shuttled to buyers across Europe via connecting flights.
The growing global reach doesn’t come problem-free, however. Swim points out that such business has also led companies to problems with receivables. “There’s a problem in getting paid whether it’s Italy or Korea or China.”
Eating and Preparing
Lobster can be intimidating if you don’t know how to open one, and that’s another problem when trying to add new customers. Swim points out “the fact that people don’t know how to cook and crack it to get the meat out; handle them; prepare them; [and] don’t know that there’s value — nutritional — in the healthy white meat.”
And there’s another problem with preparation. “We send these lobsters with rubber bands on the claws and 50% to 60% of chefs, restaurant people [and] consumers cook their lobsters with the rubber bands on, therefore tainting the water and tainting the water in the body shell and in the claw meat… You take that water and cook with the rubber bands on them, there is an initial kind of pungent, rubbery smell and taste.”
“We’re doing that with our prized… Canadian gold, live premium product,” Swim says distressingly.
This led Swim to begin producing silicon bands to go with branded Lobster.ca tags. In addition to solving this basic problem, it opens the door to marketing the product origin more effectively.
A Premium Brand
All this affects how the brand of Canadian Atlantic Lobster is positioned and with proper marketing efforts, Swim feels Canadian-marked lobster under the Lobster.ca name can begin to rise the ranks in recognition as a product of quality and clear origin. Using the analogy of perceptional differences between cigars coming from the Dominican Republic or Cuba, he is fond of referring to Canadian Lobster as the “Cohiba” of lobster.
“We have a superior lobster to some degree just because of the northern waters – the colder waters –the harder shell, the higher meat yields in the lobster – 28-29% on average, in comparison to 15-16% percent in Maine lobster.”
Next for Lobster.ca
Swim’s first steps, however, will still focus on the domestic situation. On one hand, he’s hoping to grow the number of stakeholders involved in Lobster.ca but is also looking to increase the Canadian market, at home which often affords for higher margins as some of the growing markets pay lower per pound prices.
“If you do the math just in Canada… we’ve got 34-plus million Canadians [and] we’ve got 16-plus million people come to Canada each year. That’s 50-plus million people.” He continues, “We harvested 160 million pounds last year — that’d be on average 102 million lobsters… If that 50 million people took that lobster twice a year, let alone three times a year, there’s your supply and demand.”
Swim is now looking to partner with groups to hold contests and boost the Canadian lobster brand through ticket sales to dining events. His main focus will be on Canada’s 2400 golf courses that he will supply with promotional items like posters and specially-printed lobster bibs, for example. He’s also looking to facilitate draws for prizes that include trips to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Lots of work lies ahead. Goals for the brand are initially to sign up 1000 member/owners, “which are fishermen in particular starting grass roots with the captains and crewman,” says Swim. “I’d like to see them proudly putting the bands on the lobsters.”
In partnership, he’d also like to see “the golf courses and various organizations across Canada taking pride in Canadian lobsters – the best in the world – enjoying it and raising funds for good causes, charities and charity events.”
“It’s been an eight-year plan and we’re in year two.”
For more information, visit Lobster.ca.