A Real Shell Game: Lawsuit Alleges $1.5 Million Worth of Maine Lobsters Were Embezzled by Company’s Co-Owner

September 7, 2018, 11:18 PM UTC
Scientists Release Lobsters To Repopulate Former Habitat
HELGOLAND, GERMANY - AUGUST 03: A volunteer with the Helgoland Biological Institute (Biologische Anstalt Helgoland), part of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, tosses an adult female European lobster (Homarus gammarus) into the North Sea before also releasing baby lobsters on August 3, 2013 off the coast of Helgoland Island, Germany. Scientists released a total of 415 one-year old lobsters as part of an effort to repopulate the lobster population around Helgoland (also called Heligoland). In the 19th century local fishermen caught up to 80,000 lobsters a year in the surrounding waters, combined with the heavy allied bombing of the island during and after World War II, as well as other environmental factors, decimated the lobster population. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sean Gallup Getty Images

A Maine lobster wholesaler is claiming it was caught in a bad trap. Sea Salt, a wholesale lobster company and restaurant in the town of Saco, located southwest of Portland, is suing one of its owners. In the lawsuit, Sea Salt alleges that Matthew Bellerose embezzled nearly $1.5 million worth of lobsters by creating a sham customer account. The phony account was never billed, and the suit alleges the lobsters may have been resold elsewhere, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Sea Salt is still investigating the loss and claims the damages may actually exceed $2 million. The company is seeking damages of at least $1.4 million. Bellerose, who owned 20% of the company, was fired from the firm by the other partners in June.

According to suit, Bellerose blamed the alleged embezzlement on needing to pay for his ownership stake in the company. The suit also notes that he admitted to the crime and offered to pay back his partners over text messages that read, in part, “Guys, I just want to say I’m really sorry. I’d like to resolve this as best as I possibly can with you guys without my innocent family having to suffer for my bad decisions.”

A similar case was reported in January, when a former employee of a different wholesaler plead guilty to wire fraud after shipping 50,000 pounds—or about $360,000 worth of lobster—to a client in China. When the wholesaler was unable to collect payment, they discovered its salesman had been defrauding the firm. The former employee pleaded guilty and faced up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to reporting by the Press Herald.

Lobstering is a billion-dollar economy in the Pine Tree State, employing thousands in an industry reliant on wild catch of American lobsters. So it’s no surprise that loss of lobster profits regularly snags headlines in Maine and across New England, especially during peak harvest season, which lasts from July to November.