By five AM on a fall morning the parking lot at The Coop is full of pickup trucks. A couple groups of lobstermen may still be talking together but most are aboard their boats or already on the way to the fishing grounds. No two are alike, all dedicated individuals with their own way of doing things. Of course if someone tries something new and it works…
In 1948 something unusual happened in the small coastal town of Stonington, Maine. Fifteen fishermen agreed on something! They had decided to form the Stonington Lobster Cooperative, to pool their resources and invest in a facility to “engage in the buying and selling of lobsters and fish of all kinds; to conduct a store or stores for the buying and selling of hardware, electrical supplies, fishermen’s equipment, oil, gasoline, sporting supplies; and to deal in, acquire, buy, sell, assign and transfer, and otherwise dispose of all kinds of property.” And so on April 24, 1948, at 5PM, the first board of directors for the Stonington Lobster Coop convened at the Odd Fellows Hall.
What motivated these highly competitive and fiercely independent men to put aside their differences, an innovative idea, a decision to form a marketing cooperative. They would take a chance that they might get a better price for their hard won catch by working together. This was an opportunity to purchase the necessary supplies and equipment at lower prices by running their own stores, an opportunity to collectively own the waterfront property and facilities so necessary to all fishermen and to ensure waterfront access for future generations. The hope was that eventually their investment would pay off in yearly dividends, an additional few cents for every pound of lobster or other seafood that they landed. Each fisherman would receive a share of the years profits based on the number of pounds they landed.
The funding and labor for the Coop came from the fishermen themselves. A manager was hired, responsible for selling boat landings and overseeing general operations. Over the next decades the Coop performed as expected, gradually generating a return on the investment of time and money. There was much to be learned and plenty of ups and downs but the Coop endured and grew. Some years were better than others as is the nature of fishing, but the Coop gradually became a major buyer of lobster and paid regular yearly dividends to its members.
In 1972 the Coop expanded by buying a second waterfront facility, now known as Coop II. Over the years the Coop has purchased scallops, mussels, finfish, crabmeat, shrimp, and clams, even Irish Sea Moss for a brief period in the 1960s. The Coop has also hosted two lobster hatcheries, one in the early 1980s run by the Coop and local volunteers, and another more recently that was run by local fisherman Ted Ames with help from PERC, the Penobscot East Resource Center. Today over eighty boats land product at the Coop, primarily lobsters and crabs. As the number of boats selling to the Coop grew and the total volume of the lobster catch expanded, the Coop upgraded its facilities in response.
Lobster bait, at one time primarily herring, was once salted and turned by hand to preserve it, stored in wooden pens, then shoveled into tubs and lowered to the boats as needed. The buildings, called bait sheds, were not refrigerated and the bait often did not keep well in the warm summer months. The volume of bait used has grown substantially over time and the original handling methods could not begin to keep up. Fresh bait is now handled with a forklift, salted in large insulated totes, and stored in a refrigerated building. Much of the bait now comes pre-frozen and is stored on site in a building constructed for that purpose in 2003. Lobstermen use “pogies” or menhaden, “brim” or redfish, and other bait as well as herring. Bait is still lowered to the boats but now hydraulic winches are used instead of a block and tackle powered by human muscles.
Full lobster crates now ride conveyer belts, installed in 2000, onto the trucks that transport them to the buyers. These crates are now made of plastic, not wood, and have the great advantage of all weighing the same. When crates were made of wood they varied greatly in weight. Each one would have to be weighed separately before being filled with lobster. This took quite a bit of time, especially before digital scales became available. On a rough day it wasn’t easy to read a set of beam scales on a rocking wooden float.
Originally lobsters at the Coop were stored in pens in a large wooden “lobster car,” then bailed out with nets and loaded in crates when they were ready to be sold. This was hard, time consuming work, and could also result in damage to the lobsters as they were scooped out with the net. Now lobsters are put directly into crates on the boats, ninety pounds per crate. They are then put back in the ocean and secured to the float until ready to be loaded onto trucks. They spend very little time out of the water and generally are on their way to market within twenty four hours.
There are now three local stores selling fishing gear, rope, buoys, and other necessary supplies. The Coop still orders specific items for fishermen if they are not locally available but no longer operates a fully stocked store. Items for daily use, gloves, oil, lobster claw bands, are still available at both places for convenience. We are also fortunate to have a full service shipyard here in Stonington.
The Maine winters and salt air take their toll on docks and buildings but the office at the original Coop still opens every day for business and as a meeting place for fisherman. Most mornings you’ll find a few guys drinking coffee and telling stories. Docks at both facilities have been recently rebuilt and at Coop II the original building was replaced in 2003. Parking lots have expanded to accommodate larger trucks and more fisherman.
In the summer customers enjoy coming to the Coop dock to watch the boats unload and to enjoy the spectacular view of Stonington harbor and the surrounding islands. The adventurous ones may go down onto the float to personally pick out their lobsters for dinner. Somehow a vacation in Maine isn’t complete for most people unless they’ve had a fresh caught lobster, and more than one person has commented that they’ve never had better than one from Stonington.