Doyle Marchant and Stephanie Cheney Marchant, photographed Tuesday in North Yarmouth, are representing Maine farmers and fishermen and meeting with Cuban trade officials in an effort to open up a rare export channel to the country. The first Maine export under consideration is dogfish, also known as cape shark. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The cape shark, more commonly known as the dogfish, typically finds its home in the frigid, salty waters of midcoast Maine. However, thanks to the efforts of a group of Maine-based agriculturalists, the fish may soon be taken by the tides of trade to the warm shores – and markets – of Cuba.

The export of dogfish is part of a larger deal being brokered by a group of Maine agriculturalists who hope to create a pipeline of Maine-based agricultural and fishery products to Cuba. The delegation met with representatives from the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture in May and hopes to return in October to finalize a deal.

“We’re solely interested in helping Maine,” said Doyle Marchant, the delegation’s leader and co-owner of Cedar Springs Agricultural Co. LLC in North Yarmouth.

Among the proposed exports are seed potatoes and apples along with dogfish. The export of such products is meant to help the Cuban economy, which has suffered in recent years due to the coronavirus pandemic, become more self-sufficient while also benefiting Maine’s economy.

“Our fishing industry, if you do a little history on it – recent history – is suffering for a lot of reasons,” Marchant said. “The advantage of Cuba getting any food exports right now is dramatic.”

The trade pipeline idea came about after Marchant was approached by the Cuban government last year. Marchant, who has a long history with Cuba, was tasked with finding a cheap source of protein for the socialist nation to import.

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It was then that Marchant reached out to longtime friend Phineas Sprague Jr., owner of Portland Yacht Service. Sprague helped Marchant assemble a group of businesspeople at the forefront of Maine’s fishing and agriculture industries.

“The fish pier is struggling, so what can we do to help Maine?” Sprague said. “There are 12 million people starving in Cuba. Why not go down there and see if we can be helpful?”

TRASH OR TREASURE?

As the group searched, the answer presented itself in the form of a roughly eight-pound fish that runs rampant in Maine’s coastal waters.

Dogfish is far from a valued commodity in the United States. The fish, commonly caught as by-catch by fishermen, has such little stateside market value that it is typically thrown back overboard when caught.

“It’s generally not popular in the states because it’s a hard catch,” said Suzannah Raber, co-owner of New England Fish Co. in Portland and a member of the Cuba trade delegation. “It’s rough on fishing gear.”

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However, dogfish has proved to be a popular dish abroad. It is commonly exported to the United Kingdom to be used in fish and chips.

The key export benefit lies in the shark’s biology. Dogfish have protein-rich loins that can be processed stateside, frozen and exported for a sizable profit margin. Alternatively, the entire fish can be frozen and exported, which would allow the Cubans to use the rest of the body as fertilizer.

“This critter, it has excellent, beautiful loins,” Marchant said. “Cuba is trying to build back their agriculture industry, and they’re having difficulty getting fertilizer. (Mainers) know how to process all of the guts and tails and heads into fertilizer, so (the Cubans) are getting two for one.”

In addition to this economic mutualism, Marchant hopes the agricultural pipeline would serve as a means of cultural exchange between Maine and Cuba.

“(Cultural unity) has always been a part of our efforts – it’s for the American people to understand that our neighbors 90 miles away are not our enemy,” he said.

Stephanie Cheney Marchant, Doyle’s wife and the other half of the trading duo, echoed her husband’s sentiment.

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“I think that (Cubans) are survivors in the same way that Mainers are survivors,” she said. “They are very resourceful.”

EXPORT LICENSES RARE

The Marchants have a long history of working in Cuba and fostering cultural connections. The self-described “facilitators” first began their dealings in Cuba 20 years ago, when they were among the first business owners to acquire a trade license.

Per federal regulations, there are only 12 groups of goods that Americans can export to Cuba, with the leading one being poultry products. No goods can be imported from Cuba, however.

Only a meager 37 export licenses have been issued by the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security so far this year, according to a spokesperson. The Marchants are one of these rare few.

“When (the U.S.) first opened up the ability to export agricultural products, the license was one sheet of paper – it was very simple,” Stephanie Marchant said. “Every year, we would have to renew it, and every year it got a little bit thicker and thicker.”

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After acquiring a license and spending time in the country, Doyle Marchant described how his time in Cuba has helped to dispel some of his preconceived notions about the country.

“Once I found where the reality lay and the wonderful character of the Cuban people, it was very quick before part of my heart was in Cuba,” he said.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Doyle Marchant in Cuba Photo courtesy of Doyle Marchant

During their time in Cuba, the Marchants have made a number of high-profile friends. Doyle Marchant began working with the state-owned business Alimport in 2002, which opened the doors for him to meet one of his closest friends in the country, Ramón Castro – brother of Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, who died in 2011.

Now, 20 years and many business deals later, Marchant believes he has built an unmatched level of trust with the Cubans. This trust, he said, makes him the right man to lead the trade delegation.

“Money is not (the Cubans’) currency – their currency is trust,” Marchant said. “I have all the trust – I went far beyond anything I ever expected because I was honest with them and everyone else.”

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Sprague echoed that sentiment.

“If it wasn’t for Doyle’s persistence over many years, we never would have had the ability to this, because the Cubans don’t trust anybody,” he said. “Doyle has been able to get himself where he is trusted at the highest levels of government there.”

Although this is Marchant’s most recent deal, it will not be his last. Looking forward, he hopes that the prospective trade pipeline will help to normalize trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“I’m hoping that if this is successful, the pipeline will go two ways … that we’ll be able to bring in some high-quality Cuban products into our system,” he said.

Marchant stressed how much his work means to him and his wife. The duo believes that it is fundamentally a family effort and one that is their greatest pursuit.

“I couldn’t do it without Stephanie, she’s the point of my spear,” Doyle Marchant said. “I can (say) honestly that this is my life’s greatest pursuit – to make a difference.”

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