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Summer, Jericho Bay
In the half-light before dawn, Frank Gotwals, sixty, rows a yellow skiff across the gray-blue water of Stonington Harbor, Maine. While other lobster captains employ a motor for commuting, Frank works with his hands, his back, his arms. His progress from the dinghy dock to his mooring is steady, but from my vantage on a floating pier at harbor’s edge, he appears to hesitate at each successive curtain of fog. The shreds of mist glance off his shoulders and split into gray curlicues as he makes headway. Pushing through each curtain is like stepping through a waterfall. Thin sheets of fog open and close without memory. They absorb and absolve. Finally, there are only one or two layers of fog left. He’s nearly in the clear.
A breath of wind crosses the harbor, kissing my face. The surface of the water undulates slightly in long curves but is more or less “flat ca’m,” as they say. It will get choppy later. We are expecting a southwest breeze on the open water today, enough to break up the fog. Yet right now from my pier, from his boat deck, we’re in low-lying clouds, like pillows nestled on a hardwood floor.
Frank flicks his right wrist twice so his oar will avoid a rock, barely exposed now at high tide. The tide doesn’t simply go in and out here, flood and ebb, as it does in the waters below Cape Cod. Here, in the Gulf of Maine, it much more obviously goes up and down. It is vertical in expression. The tidal range is eight to thirteen feet, depending on the phase of the moon. A boulder on the seafloor can become a navigation hazard in six short hours. Not surprisingly, passage to the open Atlantic is shipwreck-strewn. A captain takes his chances. The Gulf of Maine is a game of all or none.
Earlier this July morning, Frank told me, that with knowledge of the tide, he could row blindfolded to his lobster boat. In the weeks ahead, I would witness the larger truth: Frank knows the bottom and edges, the channels and islands, of the Gulf of Maine just as well as his mooring. He had baited and set 750 lobster traps in these waters over the past few days and he knows where every one is—no chart or inventory needed. We would check one-third of them today. That would require two workers: Frank and his “sternman,” Alyssa LaPointe, twenty-six, the woman who now joins me on the float. She seems out of place: young, blond, wearing fingernail polish, but dressed for commercial fishing—yellow oilskins from shoulder to foot. I’m here to observe both captain and crew—for Alyssa, a college of one.
There are over 3,800 active lobstermen in Maine, most limited to working eight hundred traps or fewer. That’s over three million pots on the ocean floor, a concentration of effort unparalleled in the history of shellfish harvesting. The Gulf of Maine—and its inshore bays—claims more lobsters, more densely, than anywhere in the world. Estimates place the stock at 248 million individuals. In addition to the lobstermen, another ten thousand people—pickers, cooks, drivers, etc.—provide support to the Maine lobster industry, which is valued at over $1.7 billion annually. I was curious about that level of intensity. What kept the lobster villages going in the face of such pressure and recent volatility—the catch doubling, sextupling, then possibly subsiding again, the price dropping through the floor. How did lobstermen stay in business? Could they endure much longer?
Captain Gotwals is quick to give me some more telling statistics.
Last week, when Frank hauled all 750 of his traps, he caught over three thousand pounds of lobster, or four pounds per trap. That’s about half his record of eight pounds per trap (nearly six thousand pounds) set last year. Both harvests were at the height of the first shed, or molt. These are record times for the whole state of Maine, where 127.8 million pounds of lobster were landed in 2013, six times the average harvest of the late 1980s. That’s a lobster on the plate of one out of every three Americans. However, the bonanza has come at a cost. The law of supply and demand has forced the overabundant lobsters into a low price range. The market paid Frank only $2.50 per pound (plus a bonus at the end of the year). He is accustomed to getting close to four dollars per pound. It may not be worth it for him to continue, regardless of how many lobsters he lands. The day’s expenses will be upwards of five hundred dollars. On top of that, he must pay Alyssa 20 percent of the catch. Profit margins are slim; expenses are fat.
The lobsterman is sometimes called Maine’s patron saint of lost causes. But Frank is not a quitter. He is spearheading a statewide campaign to rally demand for Maine lobster. Last year’s new prospect was South Korea. This year, there’s a redoubled effort toward China. Exports of Maine lobster to Asia are picking up. Captain Frank may have to learn a little Mandarin before it’s all over. Yet today he speaks only the language of his great-grandfather, who fished these waters in the 1890s and later. The dialect hasn’t changed.
“We’ll try to catch some lobstah—that’s my idear anyways,” he calls from the rowboat.
Frank slips easily in and out of the voice of a “Mainah.” While his mother’s family is native to Stonington (and surrounding islands), he grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts. His father was a music professor, his mother a choral director, both at Smith College. That lineage gave him a love of music and the water, the two passions of his life. Frank occasionally polishes off words that end in er with ah, hence “ye-ah” for year. He also turns an a ending into an r, such as in “idear.” This is standard Mainahspeak. Yet Frank can sometimes sound cosmopolitan, while Alyssa always “marks her lobstahs with a rubbah band.”
Frank shrugs off the last wisp of fog and touches the port side of his white boat, the thirty-eight-foot Seasong. Immediately, he ties the rowboat to the mooring and hoists a blue-and-white lunch cooler up to and over the gunwale and rests it on deck. Then he muscles his way into the lobster boat. Even at sixty, he moves like a lanky teenager.
Although it ranges on the continental shelf from Virginia to the Canadian Maritimes, the American lobster is most plentiful in Penobscot and Jericho Bays, our hunting grounds today. It’s the third Monday in July and the “shedders” (or newly molted adult lobsters) are running. They’ve been running for three weeks, since the summer season began. “Nothing’s sweeter than a shedder,” Alyssa says to me. “We should really think about boiling some aboard.” At 5:00 A.M., Frank is anxious to get under way. He releases Seasong from her mooring and motors in a wide arc to pick us up.
“Time to haul some traps,” Captain Frank says, with the motor in idle while we climb aboard.
“Yeah, it’s time,” says Alyssa over her shoulder. “I brought the melted butter anyway, mistah, just in case there’s a lull.”
“Keeping busy used to be a good thing,” says the captain.
“Now we’re too busy,” says Alyssa. “Lobsters coming out of our ears. The price has dropped and I can’t pay the rent.”
Frank pays her no mind. He hits the throttle. Seasong’s stern digs in, as if for traction. The bow lifts up out of the water. My view from the cockpit is obscured for a minute until the boat levels off. Now in full witness, the view through the windshield captures half the foredeck, the water, the sky. Frank steers east, away from Penobscot Bay and into the waters of Jericho Bay. The town of Stonington, pointing like a dial southward at the tip of Deer Isle, divides the two bays: Penobscot to the west, Jericho to the east. The primary feature of the latter is an archipelago of small islands—some covered with spruce trees, some bald. Most are the size of a soccer field; some appear no bigger than the goal. The smell of spruce sap drifts over the water, mixes with the salt air, and delivers a unique combination of odors: sweet and sharp. Green Island, Russ Island, and Camp Island—what I will call the “harborside islands”—are among the first tree-covered isles to materialize out of the fading fog. They are close enough that we can make out the individual trees. But the blue-green water obscures their footprints, including the underwater rock ledges leading up to the islands themselves.
Farther ahead of us is a broad smile of water.
Frank tells me that the number-one hazard in working the shallow waters of Jericho Bay is the hidden granite—the submerged rocks and subtidal igneous aprons at the edges of the islands. More than one hundred rock islands populate Jericho Bay, along with dozens of shipwrecks from previous centuries. Frank knows the contours of each island in three dimensions. He knows where to land at low tide and where to fend off when the water is high. He also knows their names.
Not just a few modern fishermen have punched holes in their boats on the jettylike ledges surrounding these islands. Frank gives wide berth to the islands and their footings. Just now, he swerves wide to avoid a rock point. He is protective of Seasong, the second boat he has built with his own hands. In an age of fiberglass and steel, Frank is an anachronism: He constructed his boat of wood. The pine and oak construction makes her “comfortable” in the water. She has a traditional lobster hull, with bunks and a galley below. Frank talks of the “feel” of her being just right. Of her many advantages, the slow-turning diesel engine gives her fuel efficiency—better than his previous boat, Seahawk, which is two feet shorter (and now owned by his stepson). Above all, Frank has the pride of authorship. Other lobstermen read her lines and smile. He knows he got this one right.
While submerged rocks are treacherous, fog adds another layer of unpredictability to navigation. Frank slows down through a dense patch yet keeps his nerve. Fishermen are raised on uncertainty; they are taught to expect the unexpected. “Thar’re simply too many variables in fishing—wind, weather, tides, stock cycles, the mood of the boat—to forecast accurately the catch outside the current week,” he says. “Even that is complicated. It’s best to only base the afternoon on the morning, and leave it at that.”
Thinking how chancy it appears, I ask Frank if fishing isn’t akin to gambling. As he comes out of the fog, he pivots on the heel of his boot and sets me straight.
“It’s like playing blackjack with six decks in the shoe,” he says. “The odds are always in favor of the house.”
By “house,” he means nature. She holds all the cards, he says. Nature has her whims. “If she deals you a good hand one day, be thankful,” he says, “but don’t expect your luck to surface again soon. In fishing, circumstances change fast. You have to take the little victories whenever you can.”
Out of all fishermen, lobstermen are least like gamblers, however. Gamblers bet on probabilities; they count on the odds working in their favor a certain amount of the time. Meanwhile, lobstermen accept the unpredictable and unrepeatable nature of their work. There are no odds, no averages, no certain payoff. Frank doesn’t believe in probabilities. On a good day, with the tide high and the wind blowing southeast, he may catch some lobsters. If it’s one of those perfect days, he accepts his fair share of the ocean’s bounty. If the day is a wash, he surrenders to the gods. The most important thing, he says, is to be on the water when that fine day appears.
“The first rule of lobstering,” says Frank, “is to not sleep in late.”
I’m standing next to Frank at the helm. Alyssa is aft, filling nylon bait bags with herring. The four-inch fish resemble oversized sardines. The air is rank with the rotting fish. We are threading our way through a slalom course of little islands, mostly bald—solid rock, no trees. Suddenly, out of the fog comes a rolling wave—a rogue, it seems, but perhaps another boat’s wake—that rocks Seasong heavily and knocks me off my feet. My right shoulder slams into a cabin bulkhead before I can lift my hand to protect it. No damage done: a bruise maybe, but that’s all. I look over at the captain. He’s braced securely, his shoulder lined up over planted feet.
I make the promise to myself not to be surprised again. Little do I know that lobstering is all about surprises. The forecast is that there will be a new forecast. And soon.
Alyssa comes forward, showing no signs of wear or first aid. “That’s lobstering,” she says. “Hours of calm followed by five minutes of sheer terror.”
Gulls appear, flying over our wake. They scavenge bits of herring that Alyssa throws overboard. Five herring gulls in all. And a black-backed gull lands on the bow and manages to maintain its stance with the boat under way. These gulls make a living following the lobster boats and their discarded bait from sunrise to sunset.
When the sun appears, the fog dissipates. The last tendrils dance against the purple curtain of the sunrise like shadow puppets on a velvet stage. Up ahead, an oval patch of sky takes on the same color as the sea—a deep maroon—as if the ceiling were holding a mirror to the sea.
In dawn’s soft light, Frank’s and Alyssa’s faces come into full view. Alyssa has French good looks, with a sharp nose, high forehead, and thin lips. Her long, sun-streaked blond hair hangs loosely. No hat. Frank, on the other hand, looks German, his paternal heritage. He’s blond, too, but sandy, not golden. While Alyssa seems born to the water, Frank does not. He resembles a rock star—picture Bon Jovi—in looks. When he plays guitar (Frank is a Maine songwriter and celebrity, with four albums to his credit) and sings at concerts and nightclubs, he appears comfortable. He’s a natural showman. When he’s onstage, it’s hard to imagine him in a lobster boat, and yet here he is, considered a “highliner,” one of the best of the best.
Seasong races along at a gallop, the captain burning diesel to recapture the minutes lost to his commute. He turns to port in a broad arc to the south side of Camp Island, the third of those harborside islands we saw. The green trees and blue water of neighboring islands have given them the name Arcadia. Here, I inhale the scent of spruce and seawater and think, This heaven will do.
I still stand next to the captain at the helm, so as not to miss a trick. I discover that there is more to lobstering than meets the eye.
Twenty minutes out of the harbor, Frank reins in the throttle. Breaking his canter, Frank now trots forward toward the gathering ahead, a galaxy of buoys. All are brightly painted, bobbing in the dark sea as if a kaleidoscope of stars had dropped from the night sky. There are shimmering green and white buoys, bright sky blue and yellow ones, even mustard orange and black ones. Most striking are the neon yellows and electric pinks. Frank scans each, searching for his mark. His quest is akin to identifying one rainbow from hundreds. Alyssa spots his trademark red-white-and-blue buoy on the far side of the congregation, and whistles. Her call is shrill and seems to melt the last shred of fog. When I look around next, the sky and water are clear. Frank steers the boat toward the marker, his first buoy of 750 dotting Jericho Bay today.
The red-white-and-blue plug bobs off our port bow. Frank nearly swamps it to get close enough. He comes alongside and reaches over the gunwale with a boat hook. With his other hand, he cuts the engine. With a twist of the wrist, he gaffs the buoy line and pulls it to him. The line is dripping wet. Yellow Grundén oilskins, blue rubber gloves, and black boots keep him dry. He sets the buoy on deck. With his dominant right hand, the captain now wraps the line over a snatch block and around the trap hauler, which is a hydraulic winch that pinches and pulls the line and its treasure to the surface. In the process, the trap hauler deposits a large coil of wet line on deck. Positioned among the wheel, the winch, and the coil, the captain is in a precarious spot. The coil itself is lethal, a noose that can carry a man out to sea. Frank seems as calm as if he were brushing his teeth. When the first of two traps surfaces, Frank stops the winch and lifts the forty-pound trap onto the rail, a work area above the gunwale at the side of the boat. Frank puts the next segment of line into the winch and reels in the second trap. Once both are on the rail, Alyssa tends the first one and Frank the second. The traps are rectangular wire mesh, coated in yellow plastic. Each has two compartments, with doorways giving access, all in plain view. We can see the verdict before they open the gates. One adult flexes its “tail,” more accurately called an abdomen, in Alyssa’s trap, while two small, immature lobsters—about half the size of the adult—dance around the second compartment of Frank’s two-room pot. The catch is just short of empty.
“I better freshen up the bait some,” says Alyssa, meaning replace the old with something more rank.
“It’s not the bait,” says the captain. “We’re just in the wrong spot. Maybe it’s too shallow. Last week, we caught ten beauties here. Their brothers and sisters must have gotten restless. The trouble is, this bay is just big enough for a lobster to change its mind.”
We are fishing the shallows around the islands today because it is the season of shedders, molting lobsters. Immature lobsters crawl out of the depths in summer to shed their shells under the protective cover of rock ledges and stones (and the fissures between). Lobsters must molt periodically in order to grow. A naked lobster is vulnerable to predators, and it takes six weeks to grow a new shell. The shedders gain up to 40 percent in size once they’ve grown a new, larger covering. At this point, the legal-size lobsters remain in their new clothes until further growth necessitates changing outfits eleven or twelve months down the road. For the first six to eight weeks, the lobster is considered a shedder, recognizable by its softer, shiny shell. Like most everything in the ocean, temperature is the cue for molting. Traditionally, summer temperatures induce larvae and juveniles to molt. Thus the popular summer time for feasts, Frank’s best season. Shedders are prized by lobstermen. From all accounts, they taste better—sweeter—and garner a good price.
Alyssa places the keeper on the counting table and tosses the two smalls back into the sea. She tilts the male into the sharp sunlight to show off his colors—green and brown, with a hint of red. Only the red will survive steaming in Alyssa’s cooker. Next, she hooks a bait bag of rotting herring into the first compartment of each trap. I am curious why the bait bag goes into the first room and the lobsters end up in the second. I ask her about the bait room first.
“Oh, that’s the kitchen,” she says. “The lobsters enter the trap at that spot, hungry for bait. But then they try to escape into the second compartment—the parlor—and we have them. I think of it as a two-room cat house made of mesh.”
Some sternmen refer to the parlor as the “bedroom,” but Alyssa assures me her lobsters are not that promiscuous. “They just eat dinner and try to get free,” she says, “like most of the men in this town.”
As the morning warms up, Alyssa peels off her oilskin jacket. Underneath, she sports a T-shirt that proclaims:
Show off your rod.
There are no pretenses aboard Seasong. Everyone and everything is unadorned. What you see is what you cannot forget.
Alyssa picks up a female, notes her small swimmerets, or soft, feathery appendages, on her abdomen, and places her gently in the water tank. Then she inspects a male and his first pair of swimmerets, which are hard and bony. “Don’t get any ideas in that tank,” she says, and drops him to mingle with the females.
After adding the bait bags, Alyssa closes the trap’s doors, which shield both compartments. She locks the doors. Alyssa tosses the aft trap into the ocean and the line plays out. This is called “setting a trap.” Frank slides the second trap overboard (in the same order they had arrived on deck) and watches the coil unwind at his feet. The buoys go over last, marking the place he will return to in three days’ time. As they fly overboard, it’s natural to wonder what greets the empty traps on the ocean floor. Divers and remote video have uncovered the life of the lobster trap and the behavior of its residents and neighbors underwater. The level of activity depends on the freshness of the bait.
When Frank and Alyssa toss the two traps over the port rail, the pots descend quickly and land about one hundred feet apart on the ocean bottom, the breadth of a short fairway. The expanse is full of shimmering fish. Imagine that nearby is a ghost trap, an abandoned pot, its tether severed from its buoy by prop or mischief. The ghost trap has a biodegradable vent so that stranded lobsters can escape. Still, more lobsters enter the kitchen out of habit, even though the bait bag is long empty. The ocean bottom is littered with cracked shells, carcasses of seals, skeletons of cod: the legacy of hungry lobsters.
The lobsters must burrow in the sand for protection. Like sand traps around a putting green, the bottom is pockmarked with depressions, where single female lobsters brood their eggs. At the scent of Alyssa’s traps, burdened with fresh bait, the females stir. They are the bloodhounds of the deep. They are joined by males, all clashing for dominance, to see who can prey on the herring first. The lobsters raise their claws, then strike, resulting in a “claw lock,” like two antlered elk. Some males are already clawless, having lost their crushers or pincers in combat. These grow back. The winners gain entrance to the kitchens and a feast of herring or pogies. After feeding, most exit the trap through the same porthole. But a few adults advance to the next room—the parlor—and are destined for Frank’s boat. The smaller lobsters—as well as Jonah crabs and hermit crabs—can easily escape from the parlor, as well.
There are more dangers on the seafloor than just traps. Predators that lurk in the trap field include wolffish, sculpins, and striped bass. When the big females release their eggs next summer and those eggs transform to floating larvae, voracious fish, ranging from herring to basking sharks, will prey on the newborn. Ninety percent of lobsters die in those first four weeks. Yet, right now, the biggest danger is striped bass, a tiger of the Atlantic, often four feet long. Imagine Alyssa throwing a short off the side. That small lobster, as vulnerable as a baby bird, descends through sixty feet of water—at every turn a waiting striped bass, capable of chomping a grown lobster. “If he can make it to the mud or sand,” says Frank, “he’s probably safe. Until we catch him.”
Frank smiles at Alyssa and me. He is pleased the last sequence, setting two traps, went so well. Alyssa is a seasoned sternman, so he does not have to repeat instructions. A nod or a look will do. “I’m lucky to have a female sternman,” he says. “I’ve had enough young guys swaggering around the deck with too much testosterone in their veins. In a confined space, under stressful conditions, you can’t be competing with each other all the time. Alyssa and I tease each other, sure, but we don’t compete. We both take our time. When you rush things on a lobster boat is when you get into trouble.”
Alyssa does not hear her captain’s words above the drone of the diesel engine. But she pitches her voice to ask, “What about this string of traps?”
Frank says, “If we just catch water in the next two traps, instead of lobsters, we’ll have to find a new neighborhood for our string.”
Things can change fast on the ocean floor. Last week, Frank and Alyssa caught a dozen lobsters in each of these traps—all shedders sequestered in the shallows. Now, with hardening shells, the lobsters are perhaps on the move. They’ve got hunger on their brains.
In between hauling lobsters, the Seasong races from spot to spot, its engine wide open, causing the boat to kick forward like a lurching truck.
On the far side of Camp Island, Frank spies another cluster of buoys. He descends on them, cutting the engine at just the last second, the swells of the wake washing over the buoys, swamping them. They are quick to recover.
Frank’s eyes widen, but Alyssa is the first to say, “Aren’t those Jason’s colors?”
“Yep,” says the captain. “That’s my boy Jason.” His stepson is working the same island, here and there checkered with his white-blue-and-yellow buoys. “He’ll be out here today, I imagine. I could use his help aboard this boat. Best sternman I ever had.”
Alyssa’s jaw sags a little. She bounces back quickly, however. She tells me the second rule of lobstering is to accept that the captain’s family comes ahead of everyone else.
“And the first rule?” I ask.
“To remember who told you the second. And the third. And the fourth.”
Just now, Frank raises Jason on the marine radio. Jason is out of eyesight, behind an island no doubt. “Seahawk, this is Seasong. Come back!”
“Got you, Frank.”
“You hauling on Camp Island today?”
“Not as fast as you, but I’ll get there eventually.”
“May not be worth it. Neither lobster this morning. Have a good one.”
We haul four more of Frank’s shallow-water traps, but Camp Island is a total bust. Alyssa sits these four traps in the stern for placement later in a new neighborhood. The captain calls his stepson again with an interim report. Then Frank retrieves a wild card. In the sixty-foot channel between Camp Island and Coombs Island (the next isle to the southeast), Frank recovers a pair of traps teeming with life. The traps are on the rail, and all manner of thrashing and commotion takes place inside. Upon opening the first door, Alyssa does a little jig. She sings out, “Could be eight or ten legal lobsters, if they gauge out good.”
Alyssa holds the metal gauge in her left hand and grabs one of the lobsters in her right. She is gentle with the male, careful not to dislodge a claw. The other nine prospects sit in the counting tray at her waist. She measures the carapace, the defining shell segment over the lobster’s thorax, and it’s under three and a quarter inches, the limits of legality. Alyssa tosses the lobster overboard. The next lobster is a female with a distinctive V-shaped notch cut out of the right tail flippers. This means another lobsterman caught the same female when she was carrying eggs. That captain cut the notch, as prescribed by law, and let her go. She will be forever protected from the human food chain in this way. Nearly all lobstermen respect the minimum size and V-notch rules. There’s also a maximum size of five inches, since larger lobsters are more fecund. These conservation practices may have helped augment the boom. All these measures carry heavy fines for violators. The first mismeasurement prompts a five-hundred-dollar fine, with an additional one hundred for the next five mistakes. It doubles after that. Yet that’s not the chief motivator.
The crew have their rules, their morality.
“Fines are the least of our troubles,” says Frank, facing the stern and watching Alyssa’s handiwork. She is gauging another small lobster. “We want to produce a sustainable crop,” he says. “We want to give young lobsters every chance to reproduce before we get to harvest them next year.”
Overboard goes the female.
Alyssa backhands the undersize lobster, which sails overboard like a Frisbee. The conservation measure began in the 1890s, when a minimum size was adopted. Very quickly, a positive effect was felt. Suddenly, the population was producing at a higher rate. More lobsters survived to maturity and bred. The annual harvest was around five million pounds. In the 1930s, a maximum harvest size was also implemented to further help the fishery. Then, for sixty years, the stocks stayed at a plateau of from ten to twelve million pounds. But the population has been quirky recently. First, in the 1990s, with the near extirpation of groundfish like cod, which are predators of lobster, the lobster population climbed again. The harvest reached 25 million pounds. The impact of poor predation and good conservation became somewhat normalized. Then, in 2012, landings reached their new level—in excess of 120 million pounds. Some new factor was in play. But what?
“Temperature’s my best guess,” says Frank. “Most timing in nature—mating, molting, hibernating, et cetera—is prompted by hot or cold. They say the oceans are warming—that’s pretty clear. That’s why we have all these southern species like black sea bass, summer flounder, and blue crabs entering the Gulf of Maine for the first time in recent memory. Lobsters have probably taken notice of the warmth, too. In 2012 and 2013, the warm spring made them molt sooner than ever before.
“But why the warming would boost the population is anyone’s guess. Scientists don’t know. Plenty of theories—early molting, expanded nursery grounds, fewer predators—take your pick.”
It’s nearly a taboo to mention global warming in Maine, which except for the coast is largely Republican, so I’m intrigued by Frank Gotwals’s candor. What he leaves unsaid today, however, is the crux of the matter. Were 2012 and 2013 simply abnormally warm springs, part of a cycle perhaps, or is there a trend toward warmer weather overall? In other words, is the temperature in the Gulf of Maine changing permanently—enough to alter the reproductive and molting cycles of the American lobster?
In the summer of 2013, when temperatures were running high and the harvest was six times that of prior seasons, lobstermen reported seeing some shedders molt twice in the summer. They began earlier, too—in June. Rapid molting, say some scientists, brings more of the population to harvest size in a shorter amount of time. The timing of molting in lobsters—like that of crabs and butterflies—is brought on by temperature, nothing more. Turn up the heat and a lobster changes its clothes.
Frank’s words inspire me to search for answers. Is there a trend in the Gulf’s temperature? How is any pattern in the ocean tied to local weather, if at all? How is lobster affected—not in theory, but actually on the ocean floor?
For me, a single July day has quickly stretched into a plan to wander the waters of Maine for a year or two. More than dipping for any one fact, I will cast a broad net for how Frank and Alyssa and their community view the shifting ocean and how they’ll adapt to changing times.
Alyssa is left holding seven keepers. The lobsters squirm and thrash in the counting tray. Alyssa writes the number 7 on the edge of the tray; she’ll compare this catch record to those behind us and up ahead. She’ll pass the tally along to a captain hungry for data. Next, she employs banding pliers to place blue rubber bands on each of the lobsters’ claws—to prevent mischief to humans and other lobsters. The species is cannibalistic. The large crusher claw (adorned with white “molars”) and the smaller shredder claw can each do damage to rivals and to human hands. Alyssa is careful. She drops each crustacean gingerly into a holding tank, refreshed with seawater pumped aboard.
Frank motors along the channel to Devil Island, another steep isle crowned with spruce. Devil and Coombs and half a dozen other “mid-channel isles” will be tapped today before we get to the “far islands,” about four miles out. Here, in the surrounding waters, he retrieves six traps on three buoys, all in shallow water. They are empty, or nearly so. Alyssa stacks them with the other two on the stern, making eight traps selected for redeployment.
Now Frank guns the motor, making for open water, as if he were trying to forget a bad dream. He crosses the wide stretch between two middle islands, adding more distance from the dawn. The passage is known as Deer Island Thoroughfare, the entrance and exit from the mid-channel islands. At 6:30 A.M., he arrives on the leeside of Eastern Mark Island, a “far” island, just an hour into our voyage. “That’s the official name—Eastern Mark, I guess,” says Frank, pointing to the isle, “but we all call it ‘Dumpling.’”
On the north side of Dumpling, the water depth is sixteen feet, shallow for so close to the channel. Frank and Alyssa had set two traps there, experimenting last Friday. Now they haul the traps. The verdict: two lobsters, one in each trap. These ninth and tenth traps, all low-yield, go in the stern.
Frank now has two priorities for the day: to retrieve lobsters from any deepwater traps he has already set, and, second, to move poorly producing traps to better neighborhoods. First on the agenda is to reset the ten traps on the stern. The captain has a place for them in mind, but he keeps it to himself. His lips are pressed together.
“Deep water,” he says finally, his clear hint that we will exit the maze of islands. But he says nothing more. A lobsterman keeps knowledge of his fishing holes close to his chest. Not a hand is shown, lest someone shadow his success. More important, he is guarding his family’s lobster territory. All of Jericho Bay—in fact, most of the Maine coast—is partitioned into local territories, defended by kith and kin. These tribes have say over who, among the next generations, can work those waters. The traps within each are marked by the tribe’s colorful buoys. (Most lobstermen inherit their buoy colors, like a coat of arms, along with the territory.) A man or woman without a territory is a lobsterman without a country. No lobsters for the taking.
For Frank, it took a few years to build his reputation so that he would be fully accepted into the fluid territory that encompasses the islands and channels we fish today. In the meantime, he had the spindles cut off his buoys more than once, a warning from the tribe that he was not welcome. Over time, this changed. He’s a senior tribesman today.
We roar through the narrows that separate two more far islands, Shingle Island and Saddleback, and make for open water. I could see hundred-foot depths on my marine chart, which I consult, to the captain’s disdain. He’d rather not have any assistance. Suddenly, Frank pulls up short and circles a red-and-white bell buoy, marked with the letters SI. This marker designates where the deeper water from the channel touches the island plateau, or footprint. Depths rise from eighty to forty feet fast. Frank and Alyssa set their string of ten traps, two to a buoy, on this escarpment.
“You like this spot, don’t you, Cap’n?” says Alyssa.
“Working the edge, the story of my life,” Frank says.
From here, we thread our way back through the mid-channel island gauntlet—Shabby, Sheldrake, Gooseberry, Colby Ledge, and Colby Pup—to retrieve some two hundred other traps that Frank has targeted for the day. The time-honored routine of spotting, hauling, picking, banding, baiting, and setting is followed at each red-white-and-blue buoy. I recall the sequence in my mind’s eye as a series of sepia photographs—like those of early railroad workers, tall-ship sailors, or others who built the country—each burnished with the years. Lobstermen are the last photogenic icons in a long line of Maine fishermen.
Frank hopes to land half of the two hundred traps by lunchtime. “We should have three hundred lobsters by then,” he says. “That’s three pounds per trap.”
“Then all we’ll need is a little melted Land O Lakes,” says the sternman.
Frank gazes at the horizon again and ratchets up the throttle a notch. The Cummins engine whines—all 405 horsepower kicking into gear—so, when he finally speaks, he raises his voice for our benefit.
“Today, the lobster has fooled me. He’s a trickster all right. It’s never the same month to month, year to year. Each summer something surprises me.”
“I’m trying to buy a truck,” says Alyssa. “Your brilliant lobster better make my payments—”
“But I’ve got a secret weapon,” says Frank, not paying her any mind. “Diversity is the word of the week. You don’t want to put all your bait in one basket. So we’re spreading the traps around. Shallow, rocky bottom one week; deeper mud the next; hard sand a little later; then back to shoal water on a whim. Still, it’s hit-or-miss. You can’t second-guess a lobster.”
“That’s why we go fishing,” says Alyssa, “for the humility—to learn that you don’t know a damn thing.” She tosses another trap into the cold blue sea.
Frank communicates—even engages—minimally with his crew. There is a silent acceptance between them, like two mime players on a stage. One wink or a scowl says volumes. Frank is more gregarious, more loquacious, on land. He is friendly and respected by the community but a bit of a loner. Like most lobstermen, on the water he is solitary, self-reliant, iconoclastic. In figuring out the lobsters’ movements, sleuthing their whereabouts, Frank keeps his own counsel. He is Sherlock Holmes without a Watson.
His high level of autonomy can be unnerving. He requires no marine radio, radar, copilot, or charts. Nor another captain’s voice. Frank keeps his geography in his head. He is reliant on only one thing: his own ability and experience. That practical knowledge goes back to his twentieth summer, when he first set half a dozen traps from his skiff in Jericho Bay. From the first day, he was hooked, but he tried staying away from the water during a freshman year studying marine affairs at Eckerd College, in Florida. Returning home the next summer, he made 150 wooden traps and tried his luck again. Unlike most young captains, who apprentice under a senior captain’s eye, Frank taught himself and owned his own boat at the young age of twenty-one. That was in 1976. He never returned to college. He chose the fishing life because his ancestors had. He found his true north. “I’m not suited to the classroom,” he says. “I’ve always felt at home on the wide-open seas.” After a second season of lobstering, he never looked back.
His experience alone on the water, and more recently keeping company with a sternman, has shaped his temperament. Alyssa looks up to him. While just as independent as other lobstermen, Frank is often chosen as their leader. He is open-minded, whereas they are, let’s say, “opinionated.” He is patient, whereas they are stubborn. He is talkative (on land), whereas they are taciturn.
Frank drives the boat closer to shore, where the water is fifty feet deep. He aims for one of his buoys and snags it with the boat hook. Placing the line in the trap hauler, he reels in the prize—half a dozen adult lobsters ready for banding. The second trap of the pair produces the same. Alyssa scribbles the number 12 on her counting tray.
Swinging around to the leeward side of McGlathery Island, west toward Wreck Island, Frank cuts the depth in half and roams over hard bottom—pebbles, mostly, if the depth sounder is accurate—where shedders like to hide in camouflage. Frank and Alyssa recover five buoys, each a pair, for a total of ten traps. They are empty. Win some, lose some more. Alyssa stacks all ten in the stern.
“They still outfox me,” Frank repeats. “Lobstering is like a mystery book. I thought these shallow rock ledges would last awhile longer. Then again, next week is another day.”
Frank spins away from McGlathery and races east, down the channel, into the wind. We pass by Ram Island, which is assaulted by our big wake, but Frank pulls up short at Gunning Rock, just at the edge of the main channel. Our direction all morning has been to zigzag across the water from northwest to southeast through various channels into open water. I figure he is going to place the ten traps here, but he has other designs. His eyes are sharper than mine. Frank points to one of his buoys nestled near Gunning Rock, which I finally see in between two chops of the growing sea. The “Rock” is more of a navigational hazard than an actual island. It’s shallow water again. He makes a figure-eight turn to bring his port rail alongside the buoy. He hits his mark, making a perfect record for the day. As the trap surfaces, Frank succumbs to a grin at the sight of Alyssa’s little dance celebrating the nine lobsters in the parlor.
“Nine keepers,” says Alyssa, tossing her brass gauge unused into the counting tray. No need to measure; each specimen is robust. The next trap is a matched set. She writes the number 18 on the tray and bands the lobsters. They go into the holding tanks with a splash.
Alyssa is careful yet confident in banding the harvest. “I don’t git bit,” she says. “Never on my fingers. That’s because I take my time. The men dive right in, say they’re not scared. And they git bit either day. I put out a force field and simply say no to those crushing claws. Patience helps, too.”
For his part, Frank is relieved that at least one string in shallow water has fared well: the south side of Gunning Rock, twenty-eight feet of water. Frank makes a mental note for next year, as if he could outfox a lobster.
We motor over to No Man’s Land, a “far” island just a quarter mile southwest of Gunning Rock. In rapid succession, the team sets the ten reserve traps in forty feet of water, a depth and bottom similar to the other deployments today. Once again, we are just up on a shelf where the channel runs below.
“I see an opportunity here,” says the captain. “I’m curious.” He’ll see if his bet pays off in two or three days.
Resetting thirty traps has been a diversion. Meanwhile, we’re doing better landing lobsters than it would seem. Alyssa points into the water tanks for us to see. Frank scans the tanks, which look like the aquarium in the lobby of the Portland Red Lobster. “If we fill these two water boxes today, we’re doing good,” he says.
“Half-full already,” says Alyssa. “Must be time for lunch.”
The captain turns the engine off, and we float with the current and enjoy the silence. We assemble on the afterdeck at ten o’clock promptly for the midday meal. We sit on the transom. It is sandwiches all around—each has brought his or her own. Frank has us beat with homemade chicken salad (derived from last night’s fried chicken), sprinkled with grape halves and walnuts. I surrender three potato chips for a bite. Frank admits that his wife, Donna, has the corner on lobster-boat cuisine.
For her part, Alyssa keeps threatening us with melted butter, but we see her hands are empty in the galley. Truth be told, she rarely boils water on a boat or at home. She sells all her lobsters. She’s just a tease.
Over chips, Frank has a story to tell. He explains how, while growing up in Massachusetts, he spent summers as a boy with his mother’s family in Stonington. The lineage descends from the founders of Swan’s Island, an inhabited lobstermen’s island between Deer Isle and Mount Desert Island. His great-grandfather taught him how to fish, how to clam, and how to live by the fisherman’s code.
“My favorite piece of advice was about how to navigate in the fog. He taught me how to read the currents, but most of all how to read my compass. ‘Even in a whiteout, it’ll always take you home,’ he said. ‘Then you can show up tomorrow and fish another day.’”
Frank’s family skipped two generations before getting back to the water. The legacy and the old advice are never far from Frank’s mind. After getting his first lobster boat, the next acquisition was buying his great-grandfather’s house back from a stranger. “Closing the circle,” he calls it. Now, his mother and he are neighbors, just outside of Stonington.
Alyssa, who has been silent through her captain’s story, pipes up, “I don’t even know who my grandfather is. Or was. The actual man is lost somewhere in my grandmother’s past.”
“You can choose your own heritage, then,” says Frank.
“That’s what I’m doing on this boat.”
“Hey, look,” says Frank, pointing to some floating kelp about twenty feet off the stern. “That’s a harbor seal.” The female, an aquatic acrobat, flips her tail and disappears. The rolling sea closes in behind her without a trace. “That seal loves crustacean larvae,” says the captain.
“At least one of us is having lobster for lunch,” quips Alyssa, and sinks a bite into her bologna and cheese. Fair guess, she won’t be boiling water anytime soon.
“Wanna cookie?” she says, holding out a bag of chocolate chips ones.
The captain declines with a shrug. I take one to be polite. It would be smart to have Alyssa on my side in a knife fight.
Frank speaks next. “Let’s haul another eighty traps and head in early.” For the next fifty pots, our late run of random luck continues. If today’s 250 traps average out to three pounds per trap, we’d land 750 pounds. Frank’s record is over double that, but the modest take will do.
In the kitchen of the next trap, a large female, still chomping on the bait, carries her brown eggs along her abdomen. They look like tiny berries on a bush. They hitch a ride for up to ten months, whereupon they are released at the female’s next molt. Frank picks her up and checks the tail fan, which is unmarked. So he does the honors: cutting a V out of the chitin. The notch will alert any other lobsterman who recatches her that she is an egg-laying, or “berried,” female. Thus, she is retired from the menu, forever protected by the fleet.
The captain has returned many V-notched females to the sea this summer, promising a good year for offspring. Once hatched, the larvae take seven years and many molts—up to twenty-five—to reach legal size. Just before they do, a fair percentage becomes mature enough to breed, at least in warming seas. These conservation measures assure a significant percentage of the population breeds before harvesting.
“The stocks seem secure,” says Frank. “The fishery is sustainable. At least some would say that. Yet I worry about the economics of the lobster industry. That’s not secure at all.”
Frank briefly explains the law of supply and demand in the lobster world. The greater the demand from the consumer, the higher the price. But when the harvest is high or the demand is low, then prices can plummet. That’s what’s happened to Frank. “Stocks are huge and demand is modest,” he says. “Those two factors add up to a cheap price. Last year, some buyers refused to take lobsters off the boats. The wholesale pipeline shut tight.”
“That cut the price nearly in half,” says Alyssa.
“The big question is whether fishermen will consider limiting the huge harvest to control supply. Rarely has it happened before, but when lobstermen do get in agreement, major conservation strides have been made.” When Frank began lobstering in 1974, there were no trap limits in Maine. In the wake of some poor annual harvests, a debate surfaced around instituting a twelve-hundred-trap limit for each boat. This was eventually reduced to eight hundred traps, which is still enforced today. Yet tighter local controls are possible. Out on Monhegan Island, the lobstermen voluntarily cut their number of traps by 50 percent—from eight hundred to four hundred. That helps boost the price in winter.
“Now with elevated temperatures or reduced predation bringing on a huge surplus of lobsters, we really need to control the harvest,” says Frank.
“Nobody’ll go for that here,” says Alyssa.
“Some might. It just might elevate the price. The trick is to convince the majority.” As former president of the Stonington Lobster Co-op, where he will sell his lobsters today, Frank has some clout among local fishermen. If anyone can convince them to curb the supply, it’s him. He’s been making the rounds informally, testing the waters. Of course, if the boom goes bust, it will not be necessary. Both ends of the seesaw—high and low—require different approaches. “For lobsters,” says Frank, “turning around a low demand requires marketing on a grand scale.”
The next dozen traps are slim pickings. I imagine their paucity might add a few pennies to today’s price. Prices often shift on Mondays, and it will be interesting to see what our harvest brings at the Co-op.
Frank has one more buoy in his sights. It’s floating in a narrow trough between Gunning Rock and Saddleback Island—in about sixty feet of water. I check my watch: 1:00 P.M., eight hours into our voyage. The first trap of the pair goes to Alyssa, who does a few exquisite steps of her dance. “I’ve got eight beauties,” she says. The second trap lands next to the captain, who counts six legal lobsters. Fourteen beauties for the run, topping off some six hundred lobsters for the day. That’s 720 pounds, or over $2,088 of lobster ($2.90 per pound dockside).
On the way into port, Alyssa lights up a cigarette and lets it dangle on her lips while she sponges and mops the sides and decks of Seasong. Frank does his share, washing the mud and splatter from the instrument panel. On sighting the Co-op, however, he stops and maneuvers the boat in a wide circle to avoid the bottleneck. A dozen other lobster boats have returned at this hour. The wharf and weighing scales can handle only two at a time.
“Even on a modest day,” says Frank, “we’re catching too many.”
“Can the Co-op handle that much product?” asks Alyssa.
“They can if they cut the price. You can sell real estate on the moon if you cut the price enough.” Frank scans the fleet, then checks over his shoulder at the next wave of lobster boats crossing the harbor. “I’m going to deeper water tomorrow to get away from all these boats.”
“I’ll bet some big lobsters patrol out there,” says Alyssa, tossing her cigarette into the water.
“Maybe; it’s a crapshoot,” says Frank. “Lobstering reminds me of those kites we use to fly as kids. Occasionally, an updraft comes your way and you’re all smiles. And that’s pretty sweet. But a downdraft may be just as likely. You just can’t count on it either way.”
Copyright © 2018 by Christopher White