By Anna M. Drzewiecki
The idea that Maine lobsters are harvested by sometimes bearded, always salt-hardened, always white, always men is slowly changing. But the belief that, after harvesting them, the same people get lobsters to plates worldwide is not.
So how does a Maine lobster, cooked and in an air-tight package, really get to someone’s doorstep in a faraway place like Florida? Who else – besides lobstermen – make the Maine lobster world go round and Maine lobsters travel around the world?
At Ready Seafood, it’s immigrants ..
Off Route 1 in Saco, the Ready Seafood packing plant, housed in an austere modern building, is tucked back off the road. Fresh-caught lobster is delivered around back.
Inside, far from bait docks, gulls, and buoys, a lobster trap sits in the corner.
Outside the processing area, the air is clean and crisp. Signs hang on the walls translated into various languages.
A few lobsters crawl around inside a tank in the company’s test kitchen, an open, sunlit room. Images of cooked lobster hang on the walls.
The Maine-based company, founded by brothers John and Brendan Ready in 2004, sells to retailers across the country and has grown into “one of the world’s largest suppliers of live and value-added lobster products,” according to their website. Still family-run, Ready Seafood promotes its marine research, education, traceable catch, and processing techniques.
And according to a May 2021 article in the Island Institute’s Working Waterfront, Ready Seafood is proud of employing New Mainers in one of Maine’s most iconic industries and most lucrative fishery.
According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), Maine “exported USD 386 million (EUR 345 million) worth of lobster in 2018, representing 13.7 percent of the value of exports from the state. And 2021 was the most valuable year in the history of Maine’s lobster fishery.”
Four immigrants who work in the lobstering industry at Ready Seafood offered glimpses into their lives.
“My name is Francisco Bumba, I am an HR supervisor. So, I’ve been working for Ready Seafood since 2018,” said Bumba, who shared his story first and then arranged for his coworkers to do the same.
Bumba lived in Portland when he first came to Maine from Angola in 2017. In Portland, he started meeting many people from Africa, including other Angolans. He started to integrate into his new community as he waited nearly eight months for work authorization. When it was granted, he began working at Ready Seafood.
“I started on the production floor. I started in the packing department. It is a long process, you know, processing lobster – starting from the loading, butchering, packing – fresh and frozen, ready to eat and whole lobster as well.”
Bumba spoke with ease about the processing procedure he has come to know so well over the past four years, both learning the work himself and training others.
“This is a multicultural company,” he said, stressing the prefix “multi,” and listing the home countries of some of his colleagues: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, DRC, Rwanda, and others.
“I realized that it’s very, very nice to work in this kind of community. So we’ve been here, doing our best. And like I said…I didn’t start as a supervisor.” Bumba’s multilingualism and background as an engineer in Angola eased his transition from the floor to human resources. But having first worked on the floor, he knows what he is talking about when he discusses processing. He has pressed meat out of the lobster’s legs, cracked the tails, monitored machinery, and more. He knows each part of the animal.
The raw and ready-to eat, or RTE, facilities stay strictly separated. Bumba led a quick tour through the processing rooms, where silver machinery loomed over the red shells of cooked lobster. Heavy blue bins dotted the expansive rooms, where employees stand or sit at their various stations.
Moses Mulamba immigrated to the United States in 2019. “My first company to start working in was this one,” he said. He also waited months for a work permit. Since then, he has been a production manager, a more specialized machine operator, “and now, I’m an electrical maintenance technician,” he said.
Mulamba has a degree in solar engineering from a university in the DRC. He also studied in Germany for a little while, before coming to Maine. But like so many others with degrees from other countries, his degree is not transferable to the U.S. So he’s studying it all again.
“Everything I’m studying right now? I know it already,” he said. Still, Mulamba hopes the American degree will prove a useful tool.
Mulamba is within arms-length of lobsters everyday, but has never been out on a lobstering boat. He used to be – and still is – a little afraid of the sea.
“I met a lobsterman once,” he said. “He told me that one day he is going to take me out. And we’re going to go fish together. I was like, ‘OK, sure, let’s do it!’ ”
Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Gayle
“I started at the bottom here. I started working in 2019 as a sanitation worker,” said Gayle, explaining her trajectory to her current role as production administrator. “I got promoted in three weeks to quality assurance. And then I paused because of my paperwork. And then I came back as a production administrator. I’m the first person to actually be given this role. So it’s really a historic move,” she said.
Gayle has held the role of production administrator since last April. A single mother from Jamaica with studies in English language and literature behind her, Gayle is friendly and warm. She said the role has been a perfect fit for her personality and people skills, which she had already put to use in her work as an English teacher in Jamaica.
“It was risky for me in a sense, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I’ve learned a lot,” she said about being the first in the position. “I stepped up to the plate, I did what I had to do.”
When she decided to move to the U.S., Gayle chose Maine – or maybe Maine chose Gayle. “I used to come here every summer as a J-1 student. And I just liked Maine, the fact that it’s quiet. You know, you can make your money. If you want vacation or loudness, you can go to New York or Florida or whatever. So when I decided that I wanted to live [in the U.S.], I was like: ‘Yeah, Maine is where I’m gonna go.’ ”
Shee spoke about a Thanksgiving celebration she organized last year for employees. “It kind of pulled us together…. It’s not just ‘You work for us, we pay you,’ you know, it’s about you, too. We just wanted to give thanks. We had a big feast in here,” Gayle said about the multicultural, potluck-style celebration. “It was wonderful, really wonderful.”
Nicodemus “Nic” Njitoh, now the RTE manager, started at Ready Seafood during the early months of pandemic restrictions. “It wasn’t that challenging. It was OK. Just learning to navigate around the place,” he said.
Njitoh’s background is in the automotive industry, where he started over 20 years ago, and which gradually led him from Alabama, to Cincinnati, and eventually to Westbrook and the SIGCO glass plant, where he helped restructure the company to position it for sale. Njitoh then worked as the Director of Operations at the Clynk redemption system before arriving at Ready Seafood.
“I meet with every new employee that is coming in. And then I walk with them on the floor. So every day I’m on the production floor, talking to each employee. We have two seasons. Busy season starts around late April. So now we’re in the slow season. Basically, what we’re doing now is working on tooling in preparation for next season. Training, developing employees. Looking at the system and seeing where we can tweak to make it better for next season.
In production, we’re looking at people, OK? What is it about our people last season that we need to build upon?” Njitoh asked, ticking questions off on his fingers.
“When I come in to work every day – I typically come in around 6:30 a.m. – I come in, I check my email, I go to the lunch room, I get a feel for who is there. And first of all, I start with the parking lot.” He mimed observing the parking lot, which is how he knows what attendance will be like each day. “And then that gives me a sense of what is going on on the floor. Then I talk to some key employees in the break room. Then I go onto the floor. I meet with every employee, I talk with everyone, every day. That’s what I do.”
Because midwinter marks a lull in production, a time for gearing up for the coming season, Bumba, Mulamba, Gayle, and Njitoh spoke from the test kitchen. Quality Control Technician Pamela Lukusa and Production Supervisor Hegman Ngomirakisa also shared their stories – first of coming to Maine, then of coming to the Maine lobster industry.
On the tour with Bumba, saltiness recalled the aroma of the working waterfront a few blocks away. Boots dried upside down on tall racks, waiting for their wearers to return. Out on the docks, or at home, many lobstermen are also in the slow season, repairing gear and preparing traps.
In the Ready Seafood receiving area, where trucks deliver live brown-blue lobsters, gray crates are stacked and arranged in neat columns. The season will pick up again soon, likely in late April.
Bumba, his hands gloved and his clothing covered in protective gear, pushed some lobsters aside to reveal the conveyor belt that carries the lobsters once they arrive. They are the same gray crates with the same rope handles found on wharves up and down the coast, stacked high, all ready for the next catch.