In Tough Times, Lobstermen Use Web To Net Profits

High gas prices are cutting into profits in the commercial fishing business. But some lobstermen, who work off the coast of Maine, are using the Internet in innovative ways to expand the market and keep profits rolling in.

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Things are getting tougher these days for fishermen. High gas prices are making it hard to turn a profit. In Maine, some lobstermen are trying something new. They're making more money by selling directly to customers over the Internet, getting rid of the middle man.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports on a family-run lobster business that's growing despite the slow economy.

CHRIS ARNOLD: It's a nice sunny day off the Maine coast near Portland. The air is sharp with the smell of sea spray off some jagged rocks nearby.

John and Brendan Ready are out on their lobster boat pulling up traps. They use a big metal power winch next to the steering wheel. It's called a hauler.

Mr. JOHN READY (Lobsterman): And then I put the rope in the hauler, and it's hauling up right now, and I'm going to grab this small little buoy called a toddle, which keeps it, the rope, from snagging on the rocky bottom.

(Soundbite of winch)

Mr. J. READY: And then we're going to - walking over, I can see the yellow trap coming up, and here it comes. (Unintelligible) whoa.

ARNOLD: The trap has a glistening, two-pound lobster in it. Brendan Ready reaches for it.

Mr. BRENDAN READY (Lobsterman): That's a beautiful lobster. You can see the orange, shiny claws coming up. Wow, you can't - you will never find a lobster better than what I have in my hand right now, and I will - I can guarantee that.

ARNOLD: The brothers are 26 and 27 years old, and they've been on the water all their lives. They grew up in a house right here on the coast. Their father runs a local fuel-delivery boat. The brothers started going out on their uncle's lobster boat when they were seven and eight years old.

Mr. B. READY: Some kids have a backyard. They play soccer, have, you know, play sports, whatnot. Our backyard was right here. It was the ocean.

ARNOLD: The brothers would float on a little raft, watching lobsters crawl into their traps, 15 feet down in the clear Maine water. By the time they got to high school, they had two big, professional lobster boats and 800 traps.

They got up at 4:00 in the morning to go lobstering before school, but their parents insisted they go to college, which ended up being a good thing, even though the brothers felt a bit of a clash of cultures. Brendan remembers one course senior year.

Mr. B. READY: We went around the room, and our professor asked everybody what they were doing when they graduated, and I remember one of the kids, clear as a bell, saying, you know, I'm going to be a pharmaceutical salesman. I'm going to med school. I'm going to work as a financial analyst, which was great. And then he came around to me.

I said I'm going to be a lobsterman, and the whole class laughed at me, thinking, you know, your parents just spent this much money of you going to get an education at college, and you're going to go back and just be a lobsterman?

ARNOLD: You can see the answer to that question in a video on their Web site, catchapieceofmaine.com.

Mr. J. READY: …there, I'm Captain John, this is Captain Brendan.

Mr. B. READY: Both Johnny and I, we love to go out here every day and catch lobsters just for you, pack them up and send them direct to your door.

ARNOLD: John Ready studied business in college, and he saw the economic challenges facing the industry. Cheap seafood from around the world pushes down prices. That's been an especially big problem lately with rising fuel costs. So the brothers had launched a business to bypass the wholesale fish market and sell lobsters direct to customers who will pay more. The FedEx overnight shipping is expensive - there's heavy ice packs, big Styrofoam boxes - so some of their customers are companies with deep pockets.

Mr. J. READY: Companies can have their own private lobstermen, basically. They can buy directly shares of the catch from these lobstermen and send these shares out to their best customers, clients, employees. It's kind of like the same idea as a company will spend, you know, a few hundred bucks on basketball tickets or baseball tickets, you know, for a customer.

ARNOLD: It costs $250 to get the dinner package: four lobsters, clams, mussels, dessert, and a DVD about your lobstermen. That might sound like a lot of money for dinner, but you can definitely spend that at a nice restaurant for four people, and the Readys say half their customers are not companies. Apparently there are a lot of people who like the idea that you can be anywhere, you could be in a town in the desert in Arizona, and if you get your order in by noon, you can have a fresh lobster dinner the next day.

Mr. B. READY: Maybe just one time a year.

Mr. J. READY: Even if it's one time a year for that special occasion that they're going to have, that special dinner party, that special anniversary, special wedding, gift, just that special family dinner.

ARNOLD: One of the selling points is that the company's supporting a better paycheck for the lobstermen. The brothers have signed up six other lobstermen, who are on their Web site with photos and videos. Customers can pick who they want to buy from, and that lobsterman makes 40 cents per pound above the market price for those lobsters. Curt Brown is one of the lobstermen.

Mr. CURT BROWN (Lobsterman): Now, it's great. It works out great for all the lobstermen that are involved. Forty cents above boat price per pound may not seem like a lot, but it's a pretty substantial amount of money, and the average day for me is somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds of lobster.

ARNOLD: It works out to about $15,000 more a year for the average lobstermen, and for some who are barely breaking even, that's a big deal. Curt Brown says he and the other guys all call their customers the night their dinner arrives.

Mr. BROWN: That's one of the most fun parts of this, like, just to make sure they arrived all right, to make sure they know how to cook them, and we really get a kick out of talking with these people, and it's a blast to call them up on the phone and actually tell them, hey, I'm the guy that caught your lobsters.

ARNOLD: And so far, John and Brendan Ready have sold upwards of half a million dollars worth of lobster dinners this year. They're hoping to expand that next year so more lobstermen can get involved. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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