Cotter’s Ocean Products Inc.

Fresh lobster direct from Nova Scotia fishermen to the world
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Forrest Lancaster

Canada currently delivers more than half of the world’s supply of live and processed hard-shell Atlantic lobster, most of it coming from the southern shores of Nova Scotia. In Lockeport, Nova Scotia, Cotter’s Ocean Products Inc. is doing its part to supply a global consumer base – 24 countries to be exact – while focusing on sustainable fishing, product traceability and quality standards.

“Quality is the number one key,” says Mike Cotter, owner of Cotter’s. “The biggest thing for us in today’s market is we’re still buying direct from fishermen. We go down to the wharf when the boats come in and purchase product as fresh as possible.”

Purchasing product fresh off the boat is important, considering a major portion of Cotter’s business is live shipments to China and Japan. “90 percent of our business is overseas,” says Mike. “We sell live lobsters to customers in China and Japan and we’ve made a big push in research, from handling to blood work to ensure our lobsters always arrive the way they customer wants them.”

Family fishing history

Part of this is educating fishermen and investing resources in better handling, storage and shipping methods. Cotter’s has been in business for 17 years, as a family-owned and -operated company with history in the fishing industry spanning more than 35 years.

“My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all fisherman living in a small fishing community,” says Mike. “Fishing was their livelihood. My father later moved to British Columbia and I lived and went to school there for some time.”

Mike eventually came back to Nova Scotia where naturally, he fished and in 1989 had the opportunity to manage his own boat and crew as part of the local fishermen’s cooperative. Continuing the family tradition, Mike and his family built a local lobster pound, launching the start of Cotter’s.

The company dabbled in other species of fish, but the moratorium on ground fish put a strain on that side of the business and today, Cotter’s is concentrated on lobster processing and shipping. “We have about 50 boats fishing exclusively for us and we have the capacity to hold 250,000 pounds of lobster,” says Mike. “The feel here is of a small, family-run company, but as a whole, we’re really a medium-sized operation. Most companies run crews six months out of the year, but we’re running 11 months.”

Cotter’s buys beyond Nova Scotia shores to stock product more months out of the year. “In August, September and October, we’re buying Atlantic lobsters from Maine, New Brunswick and PEI,” adds Mike.

Live product to global consumers

Today, Cotter’s supplies more than 24 countries worldwide with fresh, live and processed products. “90 percent of our business is overseas, shipping to Asian countries where live lobsters are in high demand,” explains Mike.

When Cotter’s promises customers that a product is going to arrive alive, Mike says the company takes that promise very seriously. This is one reason the company has great invested time, energy and resources in special handling, storage and shipping containers to ensure its lobsters can withstand lengthy trips.

“Sometimes the product has to last 60 to 80 hours in a box,” says Mike. “Our in-house lab performs blood work and testing on lobsters to determine which ones are ready to withstand this extended shipping. We go through and grade them with this test and the ones that we don’t think will last go south to processing.”

Cotter’s utilizes 12 different types of shipping packaging, with specialty crates designed to last the entire journey from Nova Scotia to Japan and China. “One of the most innovative packages we’re using is the cloud-pack, which has individual dividers, up to 30 cells per pack, depending on the size of the lobster,” says Mike.

But before lobsters reach packaging, Cotter’s is doing its part to ensure quality handling; something Mike says makes a huge difference in long-lasting quality. “Quality is the number-one key, so we’re working with fishermen, educating them from the time lobsters are picked out of the trap and placed in the crate. Handling makes a huge difference in end quality,” explains Mike.

Aside from the live-caught side of the business, Cotter’s has also established strong markets in processed lobster. “We have a joint venture with a company in PEI making split lobster for a major cruise ship line,” says Mike. “Last year, we supplied 495,000 pounds of this product.”

Year-round preparation

And even though Cotter’s season slows in May, there’s no slowing for the company says Mike. “There are always improvements to be made,” he says. “This spring we’re going to be working on a freezer addition, allowing us to store more bait so we have it for our fishermen right on-site and won’t have to worry about running trucks up and down the coast.”

Mike says Cotter’s is also looking to add a 50,000-pound storage tank for live lobster, allowing the company to meet ever-increasing demand. After decades in the fishing industry, Mike says he’s nowhere near retirement. “I hope to be involved for another 10 to 15 years, after I’ll eventually scale down, but then my daughters and sons-in-law will take over,” he says. “They’re already involved on the quality-control side and they’re learning and will be prepared.”

With family to forge forward and a reputation for high quality live-caught lobster, global consumers continue to buy and receive the best from Cotter’s Ocean Products Inc.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Gouldens Shell
McDonald Chisholm Trask