Lola Reinhardt and Rob Elliot process crab at the Port Clyde Fresh Catch facility.
Lola Reinhardt and Rob Elliot process crab at the Port Clyde Fresh Catch facility.
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
"Clean is our middle name. Fresh is our first name." Sylvia Murdoch smiles as she tosses out this impromptu motto, barely looking up from the crab she's cleaning at Port Clyde Fresh Catch (PCFC).

Along with seven others, Murdoch is processing crabmeat for the winter market at the HACCP-certified seafood facility started up a year ago by the Midcoast Fishermen's Cooperative of Port Clyde to supply its Community Supported Fishery (CSF) program. The fishermen of the cooperative, the last fleet of groundfishermen between Portland and the Canadian border, started selling directly to consumers in much the same way that CSAs (community supported agriculture) presell shares of produce from local farms to customers who then receive a basket of fresh produce once or twice a week during the growing season.

"Today's a big crab day," says Stefanie Colby, taking a break from the production line. Colby, a young mom from Tenants Harbor, answered a want ad last summer for fish cleaners before she took on her present job as plant manager, but among the tightly knit group of workers at PCFC, job titles are flexible, as are the workers themselves; Colby, like the others, wears many hats, including crab picker.

The crab being processed is purchased from local lobstermen, Colby explains. The crab found in their traps, usually tossed back, can give the lobstermen added income. The facility also processes scallops, purchased from a local diver. PCFC purchases scallops to fill orders, "part of our ideology," Colby says. "We don't overfish."

On production days the facility puts out anywhere from 500 to 1,500 pounds of shrimp a day. "The pickers have done nothing but improve their speed and efficiency," Colby says, which means that they can have steady, full-time employment. Others help to fine-tune the processes: fisherman Gary Libby designed a Rube Goldberg-like device to wash the pale-blue eggs from the shrimp that can wash 200 pounds in a half hour.

The shrimp stock this year is good, says Nat Winchenbach, who is working on the crab line but also goes out on the boats. During the course of the shrimping season, which began in December and runs until May 29, the size of the shrimp, already large for Pandalus borealis, will increase even more once the shrimp drop their eggs, which is already starting. Winchenbach says the boats are already switching to larger sorting grates that allow the juvenile shrimp to go free so they're able to reproduce. The Port Clyde boats use nets that float about 10 feet off the seabed so the marine environment is undamaged. "Working with the Island Institute and research teams has changed the way they fish," Colby says.

This winter the PCFC Internet storefront is doing well, bringing in steady retail customers "from California to St. Croix - and pretty much every state in between," Colby says. A January 13th blurb in the Dining section of the NewYork Times telling people where to pick up PCFC shrimp in the city has also helped with new customers.

Jess Libby, PCFC's CSF and retail coordinator, and Justin Libby, seafood acquisition overseer, daughter and son of Port Clyde fisherman Glenn Libby, one of the founders of the CSF, deliver the shrimp -frozen, hand-peeled, uncooked shrimp in five-pound bags - on what Colby calls the "48-hour marathon." They leave Maine at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning and return home about the same time Monday morning, having dropped orders off at the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Wintertime Farmers Market and Marlow & Daughters in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, among other sites. Four winter farmers' markets in Maine - Washington, Bath, Gardiner and, starting this week, Portland - also carry the shrimp, in addition to CSF pickup sites around the state.

Thus far, PCFC only leases a portion of the former shellfish hatchery owned by Phyllis Wyeth, but if demand for the products increases enough, there's space to expand. Right now some shrimp is sold dockside to peddlers - the trucks you see roadside all over the state during the season - and some to a large processor, but the goal is to someday process and direct-market most of the fish the Port Clyde fleet can bring in. Colby is encouraged by the steady increase in business this year. "Every week there are more orders, we ship somewhere new, or another restaurant would like a weekly order... it's amazing to continue a restaurant market in Maine in winter."

It's not all that amazing that business is picking up. The foodie network has shared the news of the shrimp CSF, extolling the wild-caught product's many virtues: fresh, tiny and sweet, and wild-caught without damage to the ocean floor. Buying and serving fish has become problematic for many restaurants and chefs, who don't want fish that is taken from depleted sources appearing on their menus, but PCFC fish, they know, is harvested responsibly. The Village Voice blog Fork in the Road said, "A CSF has the same advantages as a CSA: You know where your money is going and where your food is coming from. The [PCFC] fishermen collective bought a processing facility so that they control every part of the supply chain - fishing, processing, trucking it to you."

Add to this the personal touch: CSF purchasers get to know their fishermen suppliers. "I love having a five-minute personal conversation with a customer," Colby says. "I'm one hundred percent in support of what we're doing, on the ocean and as a business model, so it's easy to sell fish."

It's still possible to sign up for a winter shrimp CSF subscription, half or whole shares (3 or 6 pounds) of raw or cooked picked shrimp meat. Contact Jessica Libby at 975-2191 or jessica@midcoastfishermen.org.