The grueling and messy work of lobster processing
RICHMOND, Maine — He’s not as swift with a blade as his employees. But the shaggy, burly owner of Shucks Maine Lobster — one of the largest lobster processing plants in New England — knows how to wield a knife, how to make the most of every part of the 6 million pounds of crustaceans that he expects to process by the end of the year.
“I’m a little slower than they would like,” says Johnny Hathaway, the plant’s owner. “But they tolerate me.”
Maine’s lobster processing industry has been thriving in recent years. Since Shucks opened in 2006, the lobster catch in Maine has nearly doubled, as has its value.
With a record 132 million pounds of lobster caught in the state in 2016, which was worth $538 million, Hathaway entered the business at a good time.
The signs of that success are visible nearly every morning before dawn. That’s when many of his 80 employees arrive — at around 3:30 — at the 30,000-square-foot plant. It’s a nondescript building marked only by a red-and-white-striped buoy beside the door. Waiting for them are thousands of pounds of live lobsters.
Hathaway’s employees — nearly all of them immigrants, some of whom came to Maine on a temporary work visa — start the day by donning boots, latex gloves, plastic smocks, hairnets, and surgical masks. They walk through a set of double doors and prepare for hours of grueling work.
The first order of business is feeding the lobsters into a large cylinder that Hathaway calls the “Big Mother Shucker.” The 16-foot-tall, 80,000-pound machine uses a relatively new technology in the industry called high-pressure processing.
The advantages include slaughtering the lobsters in about six seconds. Hathaway says it is “the only humane way to kill lobsters.”
More important for the business, the machine helps shuck the raw meat from the shell.
In fact, it was Hathaway’s discovery of the technology at an oyster processing plant in Louisiana that led him to close a seafood restaurant that he ran with his five children in Kennebunkport and make the move into the lobster processing business.
This was his epiphany: “People love Maine lobster, but they love it more when you shuck it for them.”
So Hathaway started the region’s first lobster processing plant using the high-pressure technology.
“When he opened his plant, it was the first of its kind,” says Annie Tselikis, executive director of Maine Lobster Dealers Association. “He really capitalized on the innovation.”
Shucks is one of 15 lobster processors in Maine, but it’s among just six in the state that work with large volumes of the coveted crustaceans. While their operations are smaller than their government-subsidized competitors across the border in Canada — which have been importing more Maine lobsters since China this year imposed a 25 percent tariff on US lobsters — their capacity has been growing in recent years.
“Labor is one of the biggest hurdles to expansion,” says Tselikis, noting that it has become so hard to find workers that many are brought over from abroad or are recently released prisoners.
The reason is because the work is repetitive, messy, and stench-filled.
At Shucks, after the lobsters are killed, the teams of men and women work in cool, windowless rooms, where they spend hours hunched over metal tables, using butcher knives to hack through mounds of lobster parts. Others oversee machines that extract the meat by compressing smaller parts of the lobster.
The valuable meat is then piled into bins and taken to other tables, where it’s weighed and packaged for sale. The lobster tails are taken to another part of the warehouse, where a separate crew cleans them up, lays them out on trays, and enters them into a machine that uses nitrogen to freeze the pieces.
When all the meat has been separated from the shells, the refuse is carried away in large plastic baskets. Workers empty the shells into a trash chute that leads into massive bins, which are taken away by forklifts and discarded in dump trucks.
Hathaway, who usually arrives by 7 a.m., does rounds in a white coat and white Crocs, like a doctor. It’s hard to miss him: He’s 6 feet 4 inches, with long, curly gray hair and a bushy white mustache.
“I find it difficult not to be on the floor a lot,” he says. “I probably do that more than I should.”
When he’s not monitoring the processing, which coats the floor with a film of lobster guts and briny juices, Hathaway is usually on his cellphone, negotiating prices and talking to dealers.
In his office, where a stuffed lobster hangs from the rafters, Hathaway worries about the future.
As the Gulf of Maine continues to warm faster than nearly any other body of water on the planet, Hathaway and many others in the lobster industry question whether the waters will be able to sustain such a robust lobster population. Temperatures one day this summer reached nearly 69 degrees, the second-warmest day ever recorded in the gulf.
“The majority of people feel that we’re at our peak in landings right now,” he says. “That’s on the front of everybody’s’ minds.”
But he’s not a pessimist.
While the lobster population is likely to decline considerably as temperatures warm, Hathaway believes the industry will adapt.
“We just have to plan for it and add value,” he says, noting how chefs have been experimenting with recipes such as lobster-infused mac and cheese.
“I think the best time is ahead of us. There’s a huge market out there for Maine lobster.”