Stonington Lobster Co-Op
Photo courtesy Stonington Lobster Co-op.
The Stonington Lobster Co-op is a 68-year-old fishing cooperative, founded in 1948, making it the 2nd oldest in the state. It lies in the small island village of Stonington in Downeast Maine. From what started with just 15 fishermen, the cooperative is now the central piece of social and economic infrastructure in the community. Currently, over 80 working members and a total of 120 shareholders support the Co-op to harvest lobsters from the beautiful waters around the Island and the Maine coastline. It is one of 20 lobster co-ops on the coast of Maine that catch over a quarter of the 100 million pounds of lobster caught each year in Maine.
There were many motivations for the small group of fiercely competitive and independent men to start a co-op, so many that they decided to cast away their differences and work together for mutual benefit to themselves and the community. It was the recognition that although there would always be competition around catch sizes and lobster turf, it could stay out on the water. Financially and socially, the cooperative has helped the lobstermen get a better price for their hard-won catch. Members receive a discount on supplies, access to sheds, docks and a dividend at the end of the year as a portion of the profit of the cooperative that is based on the pounds of lobster that they land.
These independent lobstermen are the owners of their own business and get a say on the way things are run through a democratic process in which they elect a board of directors. The cooperative ownership of the waterfront is a key benefit to the community because it is safeguarding access for future generations and ensuring the waterfront property cannot be bought out by the highest bidder. Because more than 90% of the members live in the community, almost every dollar the Co-op produces goes straight back into the community. Stonington, the community, and the Co-op are totally interdependent on one another; the prosperity or suffering of one will be directly experienced by the other.
Ronald Trundy has been helping things stay organized and under control as the Co-op manager for the past three years. Trundy was a fisherman for 35 years but has sold his boat and now prefers ensuring the Co-op is well run and looked after. His father, former Co-op manager Penny Trundy, took over in 2000 when it was in bad financial and physical shape. “Dad had a lot of work to do to bring it back for repairs and new buildings and docks,” said Trundy. Then in 2008, the Co-op faced further problems but managed to weather the storm that came in the form of a massive plunge in demand for lobsters, as even those who can usually afford the delicacy food tightened their belts. Trundy says that although there will always be a bit of healthy competition, members are always interested in working together. “They share a mutual respect for one another that ensures nothing much boils over very often,” said Trundy.
The Co-op is looking to expand and streamline its operations by building a new combined office, tank room and shed with some money from the members and hopefully a grant. Trundy spoke of the difficulty with state tax law that does not allow for money to be kept aside before tax to go into working capital. Instead, any intended savings get taxed, compared to the situation for an individual who can hold money in a capital construction fund and not pay tax on it. “It is just too bad that cooperatives are not treated the same so they can plan ahead and save for future projects,” said Trundy. Considering more than 80% of the USA’s lobsters are harvested in Maine and this industry contributed $456 million to the state’s economy, it is worth considering how to level the playing field for our lobster cooperatives that are such an essential part of the Maine economy and cultural identity.
Co-op member Dick Bridges said, “I was only five years old. I can just barely remember it. My father and uncle and half a dozen other Co-op members built the Co-op; and Father always told me, ‘In time, it'll pay back.’ And it has paid back.” Bridges continues,
“What I like about it the most? I know that it's mine.”