Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Lobster Fisherman

One of the most important things I have learned from my culinary adventures over the past couple of years is that there is a story behind everything.    As time goes on, I feel more and more compelled to learn about those stories.  Most recently, my beautiful wife, Clare, and I took a vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine.  As we prepared for our vacation, I did some research about a specific activity for our vacation ... lobster fishing or lobstering.  I came across a website for Penobscot Narrows Lobstering Tours, which offered private tours conducted  by Captain Greg Perkins on his working lobster boat, the MSV Jenny G II.  I thought that a tour of this type would provide us with insight into the story behind the lobsters that grace seafood counters in grocery stores or appear on the menus of many restaurants.  What I learned was that the lobster, Homarus Americanus, is a story about how people, like Captain Perkins, work hard to maintain a treasured while trying to make a living in an ever changing environment.

Homarus Americanus.
In many ways, Maine has defined itself through the American lobster.  It is no accident.  While the lobster has a range from Labrador to North Carolina, the greatest concentration of Homarus Americanus lies in the shallow shoal waters off of the Maine coast.  The abundance of lobsters allowed for the development of a fishing industry.  At first, lobsters were caught and consumed in Maine. With the advent of the canning industry in the mid 1800s, however, enterprising businessmen were able to can the lobster meat and ship it down the east coast, creating demand for Maine lobster across the country.  This demand created a problem. In 1860, canneries were canning the meat from four to five pound lobsters.  By 1880, they were canning the meat of 1/2 pound lobsters.   Take into account two more facts: (1) a one pound lobster is approximately five to seven years old; and (2) lobsters reach reproductive age between six and eight years.  This spelled trouble for the future of the lobster fishing industry.

The lobster trap.
The threat to the lobsters gave rise to an array of stringent, regulatory requirements in the State of Maine. Prospective lobstermen (and lobsterwomen) are required to apprentice aboard a vessel for two years.  During that time, they are trained in the safe and sustainable methods for fishing lobsters.  Those methods focus primarily around the lobster trap.  One can only catch lobsters in the Maine waters using a trap; no diving or dredging is permitted. The lobster trap itself is subject to several requirements: there is a maximum size for traps, there must be escape vents (so that small lobsters can get out of the trap); and, lobster traps must have biodegradable escape panels for larger lobsters in cases where the trap is lost.

Looking for the buoys and the traps.
As Captain Perkins ferried Clare and I to the fishing grounds, he explained the most important requirements ... those that are vital to the future of the lobster fishing industry.  First, any egg-bearing female lobster must be returned to the water.  Second, lobstermen are required to "notch" the tails of the egg-bearing lobsters.  This notch warns subsequent lobstermen of the fact that the female lobster is a "known breeder."  A lobster with a notch in its fin must be returned to the water, even if it is not carrying any eggs.  Third, in order to be a "keeper," the lobster must be a minimum size.  The size is measured using a gauge, and the measurement is taken from the extreme rear of the lobster's eye socket to the end of the carapace.  The minimum length is three and one quarter inches. Fourth and finally, there is a maximum size for "keepers."  The maximum length is five inches.  Thus, a "keeper" lobster in the State of Maine is one that measures 3 1/4 inches to 5 inches.

All of these requirements have worked, producing a sustainable population of lobsters in Maine waters that, in turn, results in larger and larger catches over the course of a year.  This success is a double edged sword, especially for fishermen like Captain Perkins.  The landing of more lobsters means more supply, which forces the price for lobsters downward.

Checking for a keeper.
Declining prices are not the only problem faced by fishermen like Captain Perkins.  There are the lobsters themselves.  Captain Perkins fishes for lobsters from March through December.  The lobsters are not always willing to be caught during that time.  During the coldest months, from December through March, the lobsters migrate further out to sea.  They return in March or April, when they begin to molt or shed their shells.   The molting serves an important purpose ... it allows the lobster to grow.  They lose their hard shell, settling for a soft one that eventually hardens again.  While they are in their soft shell form, lobsters are very vulnerable to predators, such as fish and seals.  So, the lobsters hide amongst the rocks, not venturing out even to eat.  Once their shells have hardened, the lobsters emerge, hungry for food.  This is when the height of the lobster fishing season takes place.  And it runs only from late July through early September.  So, for fishermen like Captain Perkins, they depend primarily upon their catch during that limited period of time.

Competition over the scraps.
And there is a lot of competition. Individual lobstermen, like Captain Perkins, are becoming more and more the exception rather than the rule.  Large corporations now dominate the fishing industry; and, unlike individual fishermen, who must go out for most of the year, those companies wait for the prime fishing season.  When the companies head out on the water, the buoys of the individual lobstermen are like a road map to the fishing grounds.  Thus, individual lobstermen have to supplement their income any way they can, whether it is through bycatch -- such as Maine rock crabs (also known as sand crabs) -- or by providing private lobstering tours to grateful customers such as Clare or myself.

What made this trip even more special, at least for me, was the ability to "step" into the shoes of a lobsterman.  The process is rather straightforward.  The captain pilots the boat to where he or she laid the traps.  Buoys float at the surface, color-coded to identify the particular lobsterman's traps.  The lobsterman uses a gaff to snatch the line, which is fed into a hydraulic trap hauler.  The line is reeled in and the trap is brought aboard.  Given the time of year, most of the catch consisted Maine rock crabs, with a few lobsters and sea stars, along with a couple of sculpin.  The trap is emptied, with keeper lobsters getting bands put on their claws to prevent them from grabbing each other.  The lobsterman can also keep rock crabs, provided they are a good size.  The rest is returned to the water.  The trap is re-set with a new bag of bait, which is usually herring.  Once it is ready, the trap is closed and returned to the watery bottom.


After watching Captain Perkins reel in a few traps, I donned the rubber apron and rubber gloves. 

Stepping into the shoes of a lobsterman.
I left the gaffing and reeling in the traps to Captain Perkins.  However, once the traps were board, I went to work pulling the lobsters, crabs and fish.  The lobsters were rather sedate, perhaps full from eating herring At first, I was a little reticent, because I did not know what to do.  I left the pulling of the traps from the bottom to the Captain.  Once the traps were aboard the vessel, I worked with Captain Perkins to pull the lobsters, crabs and other bycatch from the traps.  The lobsters were relatively sedate.  Perhaps they were full from eating the herring in the bait bags; or, they were resigned to the fact that they were caught.   

Maine rock crabs.
By contrast,  we caught quite a few Maine rock crabs.  These crabs seemed a little foreign to me.  Living around the Chesapeake Bay, I am used to seeing blue crabs, with their sharp, pointy shells.  The rock crabs resemble a smaller version of dungeness crabs. They had a reddish hue that is reminiscent of cooked crabs.  However, they were very much alive.  And rather feisty.  As I reached in to the traps to pull out the crabs out, they grabbed onto the cages for dear life.  A novice, I tried to get them to release their grips, only to save the claws.  Having worked in a crab house, I was always told that crabs had to be served with two claws.  However, these stone crabs are not served whole; instead, they are sold to processors who pick them of their meat.

In the end, we caught only about six lobsters, which was not unexpected given the time of year.  (Ironically, that is about the same number of lobsters that I had eaten during our vacation in Bar Harbor.)  As we returned to port, I had a new appreciation or understanding of the work that goes into the lobsters that ended up on my plate.  It is hard work that, for lobstermen like Captain Perkins, is also their livelihood.   Everyone should take the time to think about those who work to provide the food that we eat.  Until next time ...

ENJOY!

P.S.: If you ever find yourself in Maine, for a vacation or otherwise, I strongly recommend that you call Captain Greg Perkins at Penobscot Narrows Lobstering Tours and arrange for a private lobsterfishing tour.

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