Lobstering at 3:00 AM: Hard Work, Beauty, and Profit

Lobstering - sunrise

Dawn viewed from the helm of the Khristy Michelle, a 44-foot custom-built lobster boat

A successful local fisherman took me lobstering recently on the Gulf of Maine. If this inspires visions of Robert McCloskey’s Burt Dow ambling nautically through the Penobscot Bay archipelago, fasten your seat belts.

A successful lobsterman is a leader and a figure of respect in Stonington, a tiny community that lands 20 million pounds of lobster annually, the most of any township in Maine. This is not achieved in a craft with a “one lung” engine crewed by Down East Bert and I characters. Oh, the best boats are still built Down East, the characters still have an impenetrable accent, their wisdom of the sea is still informed by generations of local knowledge and the personal experience of thousands of days fishing in all seasons.

But the potential profits have turned the lobster industry into a big business and made lobstering a career with status and importance. Lobstermen (and women) are the “cowboys” of the coast of Maine.

The boats are bigger and more powerful than in the past. Their nautical electronics are state of the art. The government regulations are more complicated. The lobsters are more plentiful than in years past. This means that more lobsters are taken faster and more efficiently during an extended season.

But some things about lobster fishing do not change. The hours are long, the work is hard, and the weather dictates the comfort and danger levels.

Off to work at 3:00 AM

I got up at 3:00 AM to pack lunch and get to the dock for a 4:00 AM departure. Fortunately, I did not have to shave to be accepted aboard. The captain, John Williams, was warming up his 44-foot, custom-built, wooden-hulled boat, the Khristy Michelle. The engine was throbbing and the radar/plotter/loran were turned on. He was reviewing his notes. The crew, Marissa and Zachary Carter, a young married couple (she is pregnant!), arrived at 4 AM sharp. Everyone donned his or her rubberized Grunden “oilskins” and we pushed off from the dock and out of Stonington’s harbor well before dawn.

Oxymoron: fresh bait

First stop was the lobster co-op for a crate of “fresh” bait. Fresh bait is an oxymoron lost on the purveyors. In the context of bait, freshness is something that only seamen and lobsters understand. To me it was a crate of nearly rotten fish that did not inspire the close inspection required to distinguish it from the more rotten fish. But fresh bait has an appeal to lobsters that can be measured in profit so it should be used when available. After that we motored off to East Penobscot Bay. The crew napped. John and I chatted over the roar of the diesel.

The simplified plan for the day: pull traps and set traps

The plan was simple in concept but complicated in detail. In practice, the teamwork made the detail simple. The crew was to pick up 70 traps, rigged in 35 pairs. Each pair had been set in 200 feet of water. Each trap was to be emptied of lobsters, filled with fresh bait, and then re-rigged in sets of ten to be set in approximately 400 feet of water.

Here is where it gets complicated. As each trap is  winched aboard, the buoy is untied, the toggle buoy is removed and cleaned, and each of several lengths of “warp” is separated and coiled. Then the trap comes aboard. It is opened; the lobsters are measured, rejected or saved, according to regulations. The trap is re-baited, closed and slid toward the stern.

While the captain steers toward the next pair, one crew member bands the lobsters and re-stuffs bait bags. The other crew member re-rigs each trap for its position in the ten set and each ten set gets a set of bigger ocean buoys.

This process was to be repeated 35 times. My estimate is that it took about three minutes per pair. During this time, dozens of double Becket bends were separated using hands, pliers, fids (a wedge that separates strands of rope), and the occasional hammer blow; hundreds of fathoms of line were coiled and stored; lobsters were measured and banded.

Kelp, mud and seaweed sprayed off the winch; bait bags were spliced into the trap; the empty traps were stacked in rows of 16 and new lines and buoys applied. The goal is to stack the traps so that they can be set in reverse, last one on is first one off. A snarled rope, a miss-set warp or a loose trap would be a disaster. I estimate that several miles of rope were coiled and released.

Radiant morning

Seagulls

Sternwoman Marissa retrieves and measures lobsters from the “kitchen” of the trap

We had set off on a cool clear late June day. The sun rose at 5:10 AM. Banks of fog moved over the horizon. One of the most beautiful sights on the Maine coast is the sight of spruce-topped islands moving in and out of fog banks. They appear haloed by fog, then obscured, finally radiant.

When we arrived in East Penobscot Bay, the work began. It was my job to stay out of the way. Fids flew, hammers pounded, kelp sprayed, lobsters flapped, traps slid, pliers wrenched, knots tied, rope coiled, bait slimed and winches screamed. Then, it was on to the next pair. A lone giggling gull stood on the foredeck and observed disinterestedly. When all 70 traps were aboard, the crew rested, breakfast dishes emerged and the boat turned south toward the open ocean.

Lots of detailed regulations

Fin fishing and lobstering have been part of the local economy for centuries. For some, they provided a subsistence living. For others, they provided a career. As the cod population declined and virtually disappeared, concerns about the lobster population grew. Maine State and Federal regulations developed. They are burdensome and expensive. The fines for violations are dramatic. But, without cooperation among lobstering organizations and the government regulation the population might have been decimated. Currently, the population of lobsters has grown dramatically while fin fishing has nearly disappeared.

What makes a lobster a “keeper”

I learned a lot in preparation for my own future career as a non-commercial lobsterman. “Keepers” measure more than 3 and 1/4 inches and less than 5 inches from the rear of the eye socket to the rear of the carapace. Some of these are obvious but most specimens are carefully measured with a calibrated tool. Each mis-measurement infraction results in a $500 fine and an additional fine of $100 per lobster for the first five lobsters and $200 for each one thereafter.

Typically, “keepers” represent only ten percent of the trap contents. Small fry and large lobsters are thrown back. Egg-bearing females are marked with a notch in a specific tail fin and thrown back. “Notched” lobsters, considered to be demonstrated breeders, are thrown back, even in the absence of roe. Many traps filled with crustaceans produce no keepers.

Each trap has to meet multiple construction and design regulations. The “kitchen” is the first compartment and holds the bait. Escape vents must be present in the “parlor” (the inner trap) to allow small fry to escape the larger cannibalistic lobsters. Each trap must be equipped with a biodegradable escape panel. This “ghost panel” is designed to release lobsters from traps which are lost while fishing. Three infractions of any regulation, including repeated infractions of measurements, result in the loss of your license for one year.

Protecting whales

To protect whales, all lines have to be of a certain density to sink to the bottom. Beyond the three mile boundary, where whales are more numerous, the ten trap set is required to minimize the number of surface lines which have the potential to snarl cruising whales. The traps, lines and toggles have to break at 600 pounds of tension to “free” entangled sea life. Each new regulation adds to the expense of a fisherman’s gear. Every year, each fisherman loses at least ten percent of their gear to storms, propellers and vandalism.

Into the deep ocean

We motored for over an hour across the open bay. Heading south into the wind and into the sea swell made for a roller coaster effect requiring handholds at all times. Still, the absence of chop and the good visibility turned what could have been a slog into a pleasurable trip. Gulls, seals, the occasional porpoise, a single puffin punctuated the ocean blue. A mirage on the horizon of infinite sea and sky turned out to be a container ship.

Somewhere, past the offshore three-mile line and before the 12-mile line, John located the area where he planned to set his new gear. He scanned the horizon for other traps (few and far between out here), other fishing boats (one or two on the horizon) and his depth finder (for actual depth and for a sense of the bottom surface to determine if it were flat or irregular).

Wordless commands

Wordlessly, and without apparent command, the crew sprang to their feet. They prepared the first set for placement. This involved climbing up onto the carefully stacked rows of traps to release the attachments that had held them in place for the last hour while steaming south. On the top of the stack, swaying four to six feet above the gunnel, the crew was at risk of riding a trap overboard if a rogue wave or a combination of wake, chop and swell tipped the boat unexpectedly.

When he chose his location, John turned the boat northeast. The plan was to set the traps in a southwest to northeast orientation, with the wind behind us. A few days later, they would be collected from the northeast end of the string while heading into the prevailing southwest breeze.

With an imperceptible flick of his index finger John indicated where the first trap should go, setting in motion the unraveling of six hundred pounds of gear and nearly two thousand feet of line.

One after another the traps were selected from the pile, moved to the gunnel and tumbled overboard with the line uncoiling in a blur. Each trap had to be ready as the line tautened. A misplaced coil of line, a foot entangled, a trap out of order or caught under the gunnel and the rhythm would be broken in a disastrous manner. It all went smoothly. The last trap slipped into the water, followed by 70 fathoms of line and the tail end buoys. John marked the location with Loran lines, then we moved on to the next set.

Pulling traps from deep water

Sternmen working

Sternman Zachary stacks the traps so they can be easily set again. Last one on is first one off.

When the final set was laid, we set off to retrieve the traps put out four days before. Here is where the fun began. Was the decision to go back into deeper water going to be affirmed? Conventional wisdom holds that lobsters should be moving in from the ocean to the shoreline in the summer months, following some primordial instinct to shed, mate, and lay eggs along the warmer coastline. Heading out and setting “outside” at this time of year defied that wisdom. Inside, they had picked up about one keeper per trap. A boat could produce a living at that rate. This was a gamble.

We steamed to the northeast end of the first line. The buoys were hooked aboard. They were carried to the stern of the deck and placed in a crate to prevent washing around. Their lines were straightened. The winch strained on 60-70 fathoms of line and ten steel traps. The first trap came up to the gunnel. Thick with mud it was dropped back for some rinsing and then retrieved. Very few lobsters were inside. None were keepers and all were thrown back. As the trap slid along the gunnel, from the captain to the sternwoman and to the sternman, it was opened, emptied of its catch, re-baited, closed and placed on the deck, leaning against the stern.

I thought the gamble had not paid off.

Scant returns inside and no keepers. But the next trap was already on the gunnel and this one was thick with lobsters. The carefully choreographed routine unfolded again. The captain controlled the winch speed while measuring the occasional specimen. The sternman retrieved and measured the specimens from the “parlor” while the sternwoman retrieved and measured the specimens from the “kitchen,” simultaneously re-baiting the trap. Each keeper was announced, “One, two, three… 26, 27, 28.” Each “shedder” was recorded. The excitement mounted as the tray of keepers rose per ten set hauled.

The trap slid to the stern and was lined up vertically next to the former. When ten traps were aboard, the captain circled until he chose his next location. He turned northeast, pointed to the water with his finger and the process of re-setting began. The last trap on became the first trap off. The lines ran clear until the first buoys were cleared from the crate. The crew banded the catch while the boat steamed to the next set.

Set after set was retrieved.

The rhythm of the process was regularly broken by exceptional circumstances. Giant crabs were pounded and broken to augment the fresh bait supply. Broken trap components were replaced or repaired. The sternwoman’s  finger was grabbed by the crushing claw of one beast. The sternman stepped out of line to wedge it free. No serious injury. Nine sets later the tally was taken.

An excellent haul on a beautiful day

John Williams

Captain John Williams

As the lobsters accumulated the excitement mounted. There were nearly three keepers per trap (208 lobsters). That made a total of 277 keepers for only 140 traps pulled. An excellent day’s work even though much of the day was spent hauling and resetting gear.

The trip home involved energetically washing down the decks, slimy with bait, kelp and mud; eating a quick bite; and resting. The lobsters were sorted into softshells (shedders), hardshells (keepers) and extra large (a higher price per pound). The radio cackled with the news that the price per pound was up for the day. Expectations rose.

Pulling in to the dealer’s float, greetings were exchanged. The extra tackle was removed by a dock side hoist. The sorted lobsters were weighed and credited to the account. Smiles were exchanged as the success of the haul (about $1,500) was celebrated. It was 1:30 PM. Time for a Bud Light.

Never fear: I am not a threat to the local lobster economy

I want my readers, houseguests and local friends to know that I will not be a threat to the local economy. I will be using “mini-traps” that my friend and neighbor graciously helped me buy and rig. I will be the same perplexed and overly cautious grandfather as I was before obtaining my recreational lobster license.

I will be pulling the occasional trap with my grandchildren or houseguests. I will be fishing only on the bright and sunny days of July and August. I will be only a few feet from shore. I will not be using powerful winches. I will not keep every “keeper.” I will eat or serve every lobster I keep.

I will enjoy re-rigging my recreational boat for the haul. I will enjoy the excitement of the catch. I will appreciate the sunrise, the ebb and flow of the tides, and the fog banks on the islands. In the evening, when I take some Advil for my aching back, I will remind myself that I can always go to the lobster co-op to supplement my “haul.”

I will leave the real lobstering to the professionals.

P.S. Thank you to John and his stern crew, Marissa and Zachary, for a remarkable day and for letting me tag along and witness the intricacies of a hard day’s work at sea.

16 Responses to Lobstering at 3:00 AM: Hard Work, Beauty, and Profit

  1. Jon Sawyer June 30, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    One of your best, Sam. A born reporter!

  2. Sam Harrington June 30, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    Jon, Sorry it is so long. I was excited. My editor, Debbie, let me run on a bit. There is a real sense of winning the lottery when a heavily loaded trap comes aboard. Maybe you can be my sternman some day. Sam

  3. Debbie Weil June 30, 2015 at 9:43 am #

    Jon, I am taking that as high praise from you! I loved all the details about the lobsters and the traps and the regulations and the synchronization of the captain and the crew. He’s a great writer.

    P.S. I’m proud of the headline!

  4. Frank Weil June 30, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    Now that is a “keeper” – well done – could not put down.

    • Sam July 2, 2015 at 6:22 am #

      Thanks Frank. Much appreciated. – Sam

  5. John Wiliams June 30, 2015 at 7:38 pm #

    Very well done…You captured what I feel everyday

    • Sam July 1, 2015 at 8:26 am #

      Thank you, John. It was eye-opening and exciting. You have a great team.

  6. heidi fitz July 2, 2015 at 9:41 pm #

    Loved reading this article.

    • sam July 3, 2015 at 6:31 am #

      Heidi, it is more fun to get out there. I’ll arrange a trip when you next visit.

  7. Abigail Norman July 4, 2015 at 1:58 am #

    Nice, Sam!

    • Sam July 5, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

      Thank you Abigail.

  8. Debbi Russell July 9, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

    Reading this article was almost as good as actually being there. Great job Sam!
    John may be my brother-in-law, but that has nothing to do with the fact that I greatly admire and respect him. His work ethic cannot be beat, and he is a “Keeper” in my eyes in every way! Go…John, Marissa, and Zachary…What a team!

  9. Sam Harrington July 12, 2015 at 6:49 am #

    Debbi, thank you. You are absolutely right, and John has gone above and beyond to help me with my five-trap license.

  10. Neil Ravin January 15, 2016 at 5:02 pm #

    Sam,

    So, the dreaded idea of government regulation may actually accomplish what it is supposed to do–saves the lobster and the lobsterman.
    Certainly intrudes into the behavior of the guy on the boat, but to a good end.

    This is a fantasy for what to do with retirement. If I ever can retire, this would be the ideal way. Hadn’t thought of this option–hanging about watching other people work and exploring parts of life you can’t see from the exam room.

    When news stories about the low prices lobstermen were getting hit, I asked the local fish monger in North Hampton NH if it was hurting his bottom line and he said not at all. The advantage of being the middleman. Only the guys on the boats were suffering.

    Neil

  11. Sam January 18, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    Neil,

    Yes, too much government regulation is bad but just enough can work, sometimes. This tiny community is working 24/7 to land more lobsters than anywhere else on either coast. Some men are out today (23 deg. F. with light snow) contributing to the annual take (somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 millions pounds) that keeps this township at the top lot the list. Most of the boom is attributed to warm water down south, flushing the lobsters north, and dwindling cod (a predator of lobsters) but some is attributable to the toughness of these fishermen. Most of the government regulations they complain about are to save the whales that are NOT frolicking in our archipelago of islands. Even I have to make my recreational traps safe with break away gear to set them a few feet off shore in a few fathoms of water.Oh well, my granddaughters love banding the claws. Sam

  12. chris farmer April 16, 2017 at 8:24 pm #

    Hi Sam,
    Reminds me of the early mornings I was lucky enough to board a shrimp boat off Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant, SC with my friend, the captain…there’s nothing quite like it.

    So enjoyed reading your account of this remarkable. My best, Chris

Leave a Reply