We begin this limited series about Maine's sustainable seafood with the story of a partnership between the Island Institute and Luke’s Lobster, the inspiration behind that partnership, and the fishermen and species it supports.
The Island Institute presents “From the Sea Up,” stories of sustainability from Maine’s coastal and island communities. I’m your host and the producer of this series, Galen Koch.
As I speak these words to you, from my at-home recording studio (my closet) on Portland’s East End, it’s August 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to challenge and stress our communities, even as more and more Mainers are vaccinated and we see glimmers of hope and normalcy. The pandemic is far from over, and - a year and a half in - the reality that Covid could be with us for a very long time is, for me, just starting to sink in.
In all of the tumult and loss in the past 17 months, some vulnerabilities in the way we live our lives emerged. Specifically for Maine’s island and coastal communities, the vulnerabilities in the marine economy and seafood supply chain became glaringly clear.
The word “sustainability” really took on a different meaning in the past year and a half.
When I think about that word now, and reflect on the events of March 2020 and the following months, it becomes, for me, something more expansive. Sustainability is not only about the environment but about the people, communities, work, and culture in Maine.
As the fragile balance of the marine economy unraveled along our coast, community and business leaders came up with strategies and innovations to strengthen a system that was, even before the pandemic, subject to wild fluctuations and uncertainties.
As part of this limited series focusing on Sustainable Seafood in Maine, I’m going to tell you the story of one of those businesses: Luke’s Lobster. And I’m going to tell you stories of the people in Maine’s seafood industry - fishermen and harvesters and policy makers and business owners - who are working to diversify Maine’s fisheries and strengthen our marine economy.
In this episode, we start at the beginning of our story. Not in March 2020 or with the Covid-19 pandemic. But rather, this story starts with a friendship. A friendship between Luke Holden, co-founder and CEO of Luke’s Lobster, and Rob Snyder, the Island Institute’s former President from 2002-2021. Here’s Rob.
It’s interesting, I actually remember hearing about Luke's and wanting to meet Luke when I was working with a group of ground fisherman that had formed their own organization called the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association. And there was an anniversary party for that organization that took place in Tenants Harbor, and that was going to be the first chance I had to have a chance to say hello and meet Luke, because I knew Luke was involved with some of the fishermen involved there. There was already a story growing on the coast of Maine that somebody from Maine had started this food truck business in New York and was figuring out how to bring more value to Maine fishermen by going direct to consumers in New York.
Let’s pause for a moment. Why would the president of a community-focused organization like the Island Institute be so excited to meet and potentially work with the cofounder of a seafood restaurant?
It all comes back to the lobster roll. In order to create a great product, the perfect lobster roll, Luke’s Lobster needed, you guessed it, great lobster. And the company had to figure out how to get Maine lobster from fishermen’s boats, over the wharves, and to consumers who might be eating it days, weeks, or months later.
Maybe it seems like I’m stating the obvious but, the truth is, getting lobster picked and packed and shipped all around the world is a complex task, especially if you’re trying to maintain the integrity and reputation of Maine’s high-quality seafood. If you’re in Singapore or Okinawa or Boston and you’re eating a lobster roll from a Luke’s Food Truck (or shack), you may not realize just how much thought and consideration went into it…
A lot of people who have only seen Luke’s as a shack in Manhattan think that we are just kind of a group of restaurants and like another seafood restaurant we might just pick up the phone and call a distributor when we need more seafood.
This is Ben Conniff, he’s the co-founder and chief innovation officer at Luke’s Lobster.
We’re totally vertically integrated so we buy live lobster directly from fishermen at harbors up and down the coast, we bring it to our own facility, we go through the excruciating detailed process of separating, steaming, picking, packing, and transporting that seafood. So we have complete quality control but we also have a direct connection to fishermen and to their communities and to coastal environments. And I think that’s really what differentiates us from other seafood restaurants is the direct connection, the knowledge that we have about every single step that our seafood takes when it comes out of the ocean.
A lot of consumers want to know where their food comes from, right down to who caught it or grew it and what port or farm it came from. Where I live in Portland, Maine, it’s not uncommon for restaurants to hold themselves to a similar standard, on a very local scale.
Even when we started, when we had one shack, Luke’s father was operating a seafood production company where he was buying direct from fishermen, so Luke being a third-generation fishermen and just having these decades of experience in this industry compiled from his father Jeff and now Luke it means that are able to do just a better job for our guests, by getting them better seafood and also just do better by our fishermen.
Since opening its first shacks in 2013 Luke’s Lobster has taken those ethics of traceability and accountability to a monumental scale - supplying their own shacks in ten U.S. states, Japan, and Singapore. The company also created a line of flash frozen lobster and crab products to sell in grocery stores nationwide.
And so, when Rob Snyder, the Island Institute’s former President of 18 years, heard about Luke’s Lobster and their direct support of fishermen and the ethics of the business, he knew he wanted to meet Luke Holden. And, the feeling was mutual, here’s Luke Holden, co-founder and CEO of Luke’s Lobster…
And I've always been an admirer of work that the Island Institute has done, especially given that they've had such a leadership role in leading these coastal communities towards challenges that ultimately they often are not focusing on because they're not there yet. The challenges are coming in five or ten years down the road. So growing up in this state, loving this state, I was always aware and an admirer of the island institute and maybe like five years ago Rob and I met, you know, we had a few drinks, went for a few cross-country runs, started to develop a working relationship.
From where I was sitting and kind of always wanting to build relationships as an organization with people who might know what the future economy could look like or how to participate in it as a business on the coast of Maine, I was really intrigued that—and not just intrigued but excited—that somebody was taking these risks and trying new things out, 'cause that's not always the story of fisheries in Maine.
The friendship between Luke and Rob allowed for these collaborations to take shape and it’s emblematic of a certain community-focused culture here in Maine, a culture in which work and friendship and passion for the state and its people are all tangled up together.
For two organizations to work together, there has to be some shared values, too. And that really resonated, I feel like these are people we could all get to know and like and trust and that’s fundamental to the kind of partnerships we’re looking for. Knowing Luke and knowing myself, fun is an important part of the equation.
"Hey Luke, I'm in New York."
"Oh, me too."
"I'm on a 5:10 delta flight."
"Well, I'm on the 9:40 delta flight."
"Great, I'll change my flight. Where are you?"
We do have fun, we do it with great people and when you can treat people the way you'd like to be treated and make long term decisions you kinda find that you put yourself in situations where a rising tide raises all boats. And that's really been fun, and that's what makes Maine so special, too. It's just such a small community that when you start to put the good actors together, there's a lot of really good synergies.
The friendship between Rob and Luke is where this story begins, but it wasn’t until March 2020 that a more formal, intentional partnership began to form between the for-profit business and the non-profit organization. Of course, that was the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdowns here in the United States. Here’s Luke.
Rob just gave me a call as a check in and just said, "Hey, how are you doing? I know that you've got businesses that are in these major urban cities that are ultimately hyper-affected by COVID. In many cases, mandated shutdowns across hospitality sectors are ongoing. So, what's going on? How are you doing, how's your family doing, how's your team doing?"
And I just was honest with him. It was not good. We, as a business, we’re very seasonal, so we survive the winter and spring in order to refill the financial coffers each summer. And we were at the end of our rope there. Covid had caused the Asian markets to shut down and really caused a disruption in the lobster industry a few months before Covid became a real big issue in the states. So we had major issues with our inventory being upside-down. And I just said "We're one of the stronger players in this industry, and we're in trouble. And that gives me a lot of fear for what could, and likely will come for the rest of the seafood businesses up and down the coast.”
In the U.S., more the 70 percent of seafood is consumed in restaurants. More than 70 percent! So, the Covid lockdown was a gigantic, monumental, mega issue for fishermen, dealers, and processors in the state. Not only did Luke’s shacks and restaurants close, but there was, also, virtually no other market to sell to.
So, with no restaurants to sell to, lobstermen had nowhere to offload their catch. According to NOAA Fisheries’ Covid-19 impact assessment, in the Northeast, lobster landings revenue fell by $28 million dollars in April and May 2020. And, of course, other fisheries were affected, too. The scallop industry in the northeast (both dayboat and trip boat scallops) was down 56 million dollars at that time.
The Island Institute works on a small, local scale and works directly with businesses to find innovative solutions to complex problems. But the sheer scale of economic devastation in spring 2020 was difficult to deal with.
So that was really frustrating for an organization that likes to work at a small scale and try to find people who are really pushing hard for the future in their towns and in their jobs. So that left
us feeling a little bit helpless. We were doing our best to help out, but it didn't feel substantial enough. And the number of hits that I was seeing the seafood industry take, whether it was the China tariffs that were in place, the loss of E.U. market as E.U. shut down ahead of time, and recognizing cruise ships, casinos, restaurants—where was this product gonna go? And also knowing that the Canadians fish first, and that they might have a chance to move their stuff and we might not have a chance to move ours. There was this incredible mess, and I couldn't imagine how... 5 percent of our state's economy is seafood, and most of that is lobster, so is there anything that you can do about that?
The lightbulbs quickly connected on how bad this could be if we couldn't figure out how to ultimately build some durability within the seafood supply chain, and particularly in the lobster sector.
So, in that context, you kind of start thinking, “Who are the people who've been really innovative and try to diversify their own market presence, and what are they thinking?
What Luke, Ben, and the team at Luke’s Lobster were thinking was that they needed to find a way to get seafood from the ocean, off the docks, and into the mouths and kitchens of consumers. The seafood supply chain was broken, but Luke’s Lobster had the capacity to flash freeze, pack, and ship seafood. They usually did so for their own restaurants and grocery store products and typically sold just lobster and jonah crab but with the dire circumstances of the pandemic came a lot of innovation. Here’s Ben Conniff.
So we started an online market, a couple of amazing members of our team basically researched it, built it from scratch, got it up and running by the end of March which, you know, Covid really cut things down in mid-March so it was extremely quick and as soon as we started selling our lobster and crab products we’re hearing from fishermen that, what about the scallops that I’m going out to drag this year? What about the halibut that I’m going to catch? Or the bluefin tuna I’m going to catch? And we realized it was beyond just the fishermen that we already worked with for lobster, it was people up and down the coast who were catching or farming sustainable seafood that would not have a home because so much of the seafood that’s consumed in America is consumed in restaurants.
One of the greatest challenges of starting an online seafood market is that many American cooks do not actually know what to do with seafood. Sure, you can boil a lobster (especially if you live or summer in Maine) or maybe pan sear salmon but do you know how to prepare monkfish or halibut at home? Do you know how to properly unthaw a pack of flash frozen dayboat scallops? The team at Luke’s knew that they had the capacity to prepare, pack, and ship products directly from fishermen to consumers but would we, the American eater, know what to do with them?
So we took it upon ourselves to start trying to educate consumers about how they might actually prepare this seafood at home instead of relying on chefs at restaurants to do it for them. That’s where we wound up partnering with [the] Island Institute who worked with us to go out and start this project and get funding for this project to demystify all these different types of sustainable seafood and help us buy those from fishermen, make sure they got used, make sure they didn’t go to waste or fishermen didn’t have to keep their boats at the dock and then create the content needed for our customers to really feel comfortable buying, cooking, and serving that seafood to themselves and their families.
For Rob Snyder at the Island Institute, introducing more of Maine’s sustainably caught or harvested seafood into the homes of consumers not only supports Maine fishermen, but helps support the oceans, too.
There's a challenge that—seafood globally has really been struggling with, and that is point-of-origin traceability from diverse sources on a global scale. In a way, if you can build a trusted platform that allows—that can reach into various kinds of species, you're creating a greater opportunity to get transparency from the harvester to the consumer, working with a vertically integrated company that's got that commitment as part of its DNA. And that, fundamentally, is probably the biggest driver of ocean species depletion in the world is this lack of transparency in the supply chain, and Luke's commitment to that and this platform's ability to tap into various species and help create that transparency in supply chain really shows a way forward for a really systemic problem in global seafood.
There is an ever-growing desire among American consumers to eat food that supports a healthier planet, or at least doesn’t destroy it. Some folks choose to stop eating red meat or go vegan or eat as much local food as they can. When it comes to seafood your most sustainable option is to eat a diversity of species from sustainable fisheries sold by companies who trace and verify the catch. On Luke’s e-commerce site you can buy halibut, tuna, monkfish and other groundfish species like hake and haddock, kelp, eel (unagi), and dayboat scallops in addition to crab and lobster. Here’s Ben Conniff.
For the supply chain and for the products that we sell, diversification to the extent of everyone in Maine just not relying entirely on lobster for our economy, for our business, for the fishermen’s income, their ability to go out and also catch scallops, farm kelp, catch fin fish, that is going to give them resiliency as well. The ability to have multiple products, multiple species, all sustainable that we can turn to as a way to make a living, that’s critical to the coastal economy and because the online market allows us to support more of those products that we couldn’t squeeze into our tiny shacks that means this online market is going to be even more helpful to keep coastal communities strong.
And with the help of the Island Institute (and this podcast) Luke’s Lobster hopes to educate consumers on what seafood is sustainably caught and how to prepare it. Here’s Luke Holden.
It’s a really, really neat opportunity to figure out where the ancillary opportunities are to add more value onto what the fishermen are leveraging each and every day. These boats ultimately are investments, these working waterfronts are investments and the more utilization of those capacity of those types of investments that you can ultimately see towards will create more of a balanced economy, more of a durable economy, so that throughout these types of economic challenges, and spices, and troughs, and landings, there's just a more sustainable business model going forward.
The overall goal of the partnership between Luke’s Lobster and the Island Institute is to provide access to the (sometimes impossible to navigate) seafood supply chain through the e-commerce site. To provide accessibility and traceability to everyday consumers. But the site, and the partnership, provide other outcomes, too. Supporting sustainable fisheries beyond lobster and crab gives fishermen options for resiliency in the face of changes that are happening along our coastline and in Gulf of Maine waters.
Organizationally we are taking as a given that the rate of change that communities are going to experience are going to change and become more dramatic. I mean, what is resilience? For me the simplest definition is it's the ability and skill to respond effectively to change. But for this project and for the island institute, this is fundamental for building resilient communities because it opens up new channels, new markets, new ways of thinking about and doing business, all of which will prepare people for the unknown that lies ahead. And I think we're modeling that in our own behavior in this partnership, by looking outside of a silo of the non-profit or private and showing that we can be more resilient together, even.
Building a resilient marine economy is one goal of the partnership between Luke’s Lobster and the Island Institute. And to achieve that goal, the partnership is working to adapt to the changing climate and come up with innovative climate solutions. For Sam Belknap, Senior Community Development Officer at the Island Institute, that’s one of the most exciting outcomes of the work that his organization and Luke’s Lobster are embarking on.
There’s no reason why the marine sector in Maine cannot lead on the climate change front, from a mitigation standpoint to an adaptation standpoint. But it’s going to take some forward thinking individuals to go out on a limb and to test some assumptions and to pilot some work and Luke’s and their team represents just one such business where they’re willing to take a risk and see like well let’s see how we can minimize our impact on the climate and if it has business benefits that’s great but that’s not going to be our driving motivation behind it - we’re going to do it for the good of the planet because the resource that we make our money of off is intimately impacted by climate change, so if we can do our part in starting to pave the way for the lobster fishery to full decarbonize and lower its greenhouse gas emissions and its climate impact then all the better. We’re thrilled to see this partnership kind of come to fruition with that goal in mind.
Luke’s Lobster is a certified B-Corp, which means that the business balances profit and purpose. That ethos is directly tied into the e-commerce site, and the work that Luke’s is doing with the Island Institute. In addition to supporting a diversification of Maine’s marine economy, they’re also working to reduce carbon emissions in the lobster fishery and pilot projects at their processing plant that reduce energy consumption.
How can we have what our communities have always had in spirit? How can we put into practice the sustainability that we need to see as coastal communities and the resilience that we need to see as coastal communities represented by the sheer fact that they’ve been here and weathered many storms and transitioned themselves time and time again. And really when we look at a company like Luke’s lobster and their holistic approach to providing sustainable seafood and to providing outlets for new types of seafood and by diversifying markets for fishing families and fishing communities represent a new way of doing business that we need to see more of along the coast. I think there’s been a hesitancy to think about what the coast could be in 10, 15, 20 years, beyond what it has been in the past, and I think this collaboration is one of the first steps in helping to co-create what that future looks like by connecting non-profit work, by connecting private sector business around a way of being and a way of doing business that we want to see on the coast in the future.
To face the future head-on can be pretty terrifying. It’s uncertain, it’s unpredictable. But if the last year and a half taught us anything it’s that we are already living in an unpredictable, unsteady world.
The lessons of the pandemic will, I hope, lead to more innovation in creating sustainable and resilient coastal and island communities here in Maine. It’s clear that supporting the marine economy and the people who work and live in these communities will not always have easy, straightforward solutions. It will require collaboration, partnership, and coordination between non-profits, for-profits, and even regulatory agencies. By working together, we can create and support sustainable supply chains, sustainable fisheries, and sustainable communities here in Maine.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more episodes of “From the Sea Up.” I’ll be telling the stories of some of the diverse and sustainable marine species here in Maine.
Thanks for listening to From the Sea Up, presented by the Island Institute and produced by me, Galen Koch. Special thanks to Rob Snyder, Luke Holden, Ben Conniff, Merritt Carey, and Sam Belknap for participation and research on this episode. The music in this episode was composed by Daniel Birch,
“From the Sea up” is made possible by the Fund for Maine Islands and a partnership between the Island Institute, College of the Atlantic, Luke’s Lobster, Maine Sea Grant, and The First Coast. For more information visit www.islandinstitute.org/podcast