Deep in the Maine Psyche


-----Lobsters are very weird critters. Humors americanus is in the phylum Arthropoda, that includes such delicacies as insects and spiders. Lobsters are, in fact, saltwater cockroaches.

-----Lobstermen are also very weird critters. Homo americanus var. lobsterosus are often compared and confused with H. americanus var. cowboyensis. As westerners, we can assure you they are not cowboys.

-----We have studied both lobsters and lobstermen in order to understand their behavior. Their story is fascinating.


-----As one might expect with such an arthropod phylogeny, lobsters have not always been considered a delicacy. In colonial days they were fed twice a week to indentured servants, who complained bitterly about their poor fare, so much so that a clause was added by law to their contracts - they could not be fed lobsters more than four times a week. Some prisons in colonial New England forbade the serving of lobster more than once a week to inmates - it was cruel and unusual treatment. Coastal kids found big ones under almost every rock. They were collected for farmers who spread them as fertilizer on their fields.


-----Until the 1840's, nobody thought of harvesting and selling a lobster. Then, in the fall of 1850, some Gloucester fishermen sailed a "wet smack" into Swan's Island . A wet smack has holes in its hold to allow circulation of seawater. They hired a few locals to collect lobsters, filled the hold with live lobsters, and headed for Boston. Thus did commercial lobstering begin. Soon locals were taught to set traps and await the arrival of the wet smacks from Gloucester. Lobster dealers paid the locals a few cents per lobster and most were processed by canneries.

-----There were some giant crustaceans in those days - twenty-pounders were not unusual and a forty-three-pounder was wrestled from the waters near Friendship, Maine. Lobstering then was for men too old to go to the offshore fishing grounds. The old man, trailing a few grandkids, would row out to the forty or so traps he kept in the bay and collect a few hundred pounds of lobster in a day. In those early days, each trap often held at least six lobsters, many weighing five pounds or more - usually at least thirty pounds per trap. They were sold for pennies, apiece. Today, a strapping young fellow in a powerful boat sets up to eight hundred traps. He is lucky if there is one keeping-sized lobster per trap, weighing little more than a pound, so he often collects less than a hundred pounds a day. However, a pound of lobster fetches the fisherman about $2.75 per pound today. Still, with inflation, cost of boats, fuel and gear, and more competition for the resource, his 'keeping' income has generally been reducing over the past thirty years or so.

-----By the late 1800's, canning lobster was big business, with almost a hundred canneries along the coast and on the islands. Fourteen million pounds of lobster went into cans in 1880, most to be shipped overseas from Boston and New York. Small lobsters ("shorts") went into cans, big lobsters were held in "pounds" for the wet smacks to carry live to market. Skippers of wet smacks knew that they could negotiate better with the fishermen if they tossed in some stone jugs of whiskey in the deal. Women did most of the work in the canneries, picking and packing the lobsters. Men soldered the tins and moved the boxes. Men were paid $7-15 a week, women $2-3. Boys, up to 14, were paid 25 cents a day.

-----Island "traders," vessels that were floating stores, called regularly on the islands, tying off to the cannery or lobster dock for a few days selling everything a general store had for folks on the mainland. There was even a floating cobbler on Penobscot Bay who traveled to islands in his scow with the sign, "Boots and Shoes Repaired on the Rolling Deep."

-----By 1900, canneries were being shut down. Too many shorts were being taken. They were too young to have bred, so the lobster population crashed. Commissioners from the New England states met to make conservation rules, and in good New England fashion, they are still meeting on the same subject. More had to be known about the lives of lobsters, so biologists studied them and still are.


-----Lobsters are amazing creatures. They may be "bugs," as the locals call them, but they are well-equipped bugs. They have two different and distinct claws. One is a crusher and the other a ripper, each with an obvious function. If you have ever had the misfortune of having one latch onto you, you know their strength. As a lesson to a curious youngster, I remember Grandpa putting a pencil in the open "jaws" of the crusher claw of a very unhappy crustacean. The pencil was mashed, smashed and splinters before I could catch my breath.

-----Since they are cannibals, lobsters generally lead a solitary life. They apparently maintain a territory, that they defend, but large adults move at will. All are vulnerable to their fellows, as well as other predators, when they molt their hard carapace. During the few weeks they are "soft shells", they hide in rock crevices and remain inactive. They eat almost anything and generally make their living scavenging. In hard times, or when caught in a trap, they can filter plankton from sea water and make do.

-----Lobsters don't breed until they are about five years old. Then, when the female sheds and is soft and defenseless, a male corrals her. If she judges him suitable (who knows by what criteria), she sends waves of pheromone 'perfume' at him, virtually drugging him into a single-minded purpose. Hopefully this works since her cannibalistic potential mate has to make a difficult decision - a lobster dinner or sex. A human might find that a difficult choice, also.

-----Lobsters, out on a "date"

-----A fertilized female can carry the male sperm in a special pouch for months, until she determines the time is right for egg laying. Then, she fertilizes up to 20,000 eggs with this delayed process. Now known by fishermen as an "egger," and illegal to keep, she carries that egg mass under her tail for nine to eleven months. If caught, the lobsterman notches her tail to indicate that she is a breeder, and releases her. If caught again, even without eggs, she will be released in order to maintain the breeding stock. Fishermen are often a crude lot, so you can imagine some of the jokes bantered about concerning "notched" females.





An Egger, with a green mass of eggs under her tail

-----When the eggs hatch, the larvae float near the water surface for several weeks - preyed on by fish and birds. The survivors (estimated to be about ten of the 20,000) sink to the bottom to hide under a rock for up to four years. They leave their hiding place only at night, and only to feed. They grow so fast in the first five years that they will shed their carapaces up to 25 times.


-----A Youngster

-----They shed about once a year after reaching adult size (3 8/32 inches between eye socket and the end of the carapace). The process is triggered by water temperature - usually early summer on the Maine coast. A legal-sized lobster is about seven years old.


A Poster on a Lobsterman's Shed






-----Traps, in the early days, were made of wooden slats with tarred rope netting on one end - there was a cone-shaped passage through the rope large enough for a lobster to back into the trap. They aren't bright enough to back out, and their claws block forward passage, so they remain trapped. Traps were baited with cod heads hung from a row of hooks.

-----Today, the trap or pot is usually made of wire mesh, aluminized or coated with vinyl. There is still the cone-shaped entrance to test the IQ of lobsters. There are "three-footers, forty-inchers, and four-footers." Four-footers seem to catch more lobsters - perhaps because a lobster will protect its prison, or actually, the food in the trap, and prevent other lobsters from entering. Four-footers give more space and make lobsters less defensive. Most traps are "three-brickers"- bricks placed in the bottom so they set bottom-side down. The interior of a modern trap has two compartments - a "kitchen and a parlor," creating two cone-shaped barriers to egress, thus hopefully proving to be too great a mental challenge for a crustacean brain. There is a door on top to remove the lobsters.

-----The state requires "two escape vents," one with a stainless hog ring of a proper size to allow undersize lobsters to escape. The other has a plastic degradable ring. If a pot is lost due to a cut or rotten line ("ghost gear"), the plastic ring hopefully deteriorates in one season allowing a large opening so all lobsters can escape.

-----Lobstermen may drop as many as 600-800 traps, linked by lines ("warps") to buoys. Each lobsterman has a distinctive color pattern unique to each area, like a brand, registered with the state.

A Colorful Link to a Livelihood, but an Obstacle Course for Boaters

-----Most fishermen drop two pots per buoy. The second is connected by sixty feet of line to the first and is called the "trailer."

The Lobsterman baits the trailer after sliding the first pot aft to his sternman for baiting.

-----Some fishermen drop strings as long as a dozen per buoy, where this is legal. A mesh bag filled with salted herring is the usual bait, although fish parts are sometimes used.


Traps are often stored in yards on the dock or on a floating platform.

-----Removing the lobster from the trap, the fisherman places an elastic band over the claws, using a special plier-like tool. This not only prevents accidental bites but, more importantly, keeps the cannibalistic lobsters from eating each other in the barrel on the trip back to market.


-----At the end of the haul, the lobsterman returns to a dealer's dock (often a co-op) where the lobsters are checked and weighed by the buyer, placed in containers and stored in "cars" prior to shipping by truck to or by wholesalers. Some dealers keep lobsters in "pounds," a large net enclosure, where they may remain for months until market price is more favorable.


Unloading, weighing, putting in boxes

Storing the boxes beside or under the platform in the "car"

The Scale, at a Pound

-----Lobster economics is a classic story of supply and demand. As lobsters became more scarce, the price went up. In the 1850's, each lobster, regardless of size, sold for a few cents apiece. By 1900, they fetched nine cents a pound. Naturally, more folks, now including younger men, went lobstering. In 1855, ten men were lobstering off Swan's Island. In 1900, there were 140 men in the same water. Now, about 7,000 are licensed for lobsters in Maine and they fetch over one hundred million dollars of lobsters per year. The price is over one hundred times greater than a hundred years ago, but, despite over a hundred-fold increase in the number of fishermen and traps, the catch is about the same. If it were not for state and self-regulation, the resource would long ago have been depleted. It is a hard life with slowly diminishing real income.




Follow the sign, to the bib, to the board, to El munching. Many days, she had lobster (stewed, boiled, or in a roll) twice a day - she was in tall clover.


-----Lobstermen are amazing creatures. The myth depicts him as a solitary creature, working for himself. In reality, he is often helped in the boat or ashore by his wife or other family members.

Lobster "men"

-----They awaken early, and roar their boats out to sea where they pull pots through all kinds of weather. Their day is an endless round of pulling and placing, taking their catch back to dock and selling to the highest bidder. Myth compares them to the cowboy, hard-working, and independent. He is tough, but kind to kids, women and animals (except crustaceans).

The Myth - Lonely, but Free

-----There's an annual round that affects lobstermen, based on the weather, biology of the lobster, and the market. The four seasons each have a pattern. In the early summer, lobsters are shedding and few are caught. That's the time to pull the gear and do the fixing. Late summer is the working time - the weather is good and, after shedding, there is a new class of lobsters who have reached legal size. Tourists flood the coast, munching on lobsters, so the price is high during the summer. After the "summer complaints" go home, price drops dramatically since there are still lobsters to be caught. Many lobsters go to pounds awaiting higher prices. Fall and early winter are usually the best fishing. Lobsters tend to move to deeper water where there is less trap congestion. As the weather deteriorates, and storms increase in frequency, there are fewer days available for fishing. Lobsters become inactive during the cold winter months and the season slows. Late winter and early spring are the quiet times, and men often get other jobs or fish for shrimp or scallops. This, however, is the time of highest prices, and the lobsters from pounds are now sold to market. As the water warms and weather improves, usually in April, lobster'n begins anew, but lately the spring catch has been poor, since most of the legal lobsters have already been caught and the new class has yet to shed to legal size. Prices also are lower in Spring, since the "from aways"are still away. This creates an imbalance between supply and demand.

-----There is also a daily cycle for a lobsterman. If the weather is favorable, he is up early. There may be brief visits at the dock with other fishermen and then he rows out to the boat mooring.


The Dock and the Moorings

-----They roar out of harbor at full throttle, their wakes thrashing any "pleasure" boat anchored by the "people from away" foolish enough to anchor in their harbor.


-----When they arrive at their traps, they spot a buoy, cut engine, turn hard a'starboard, grab the warp with a gaff, wrap it onto the flywheel of the hydraulic "pot puller" and rapidly lift the traps.


A Close-up of the Gear

-----Line, slime, and weeds snake around the legs of the hauler. The first trap up is slid back along the "rail" to the sternman and the second is worked by the skipper. Lids are lifted, shorts thrown back, keepers put in a bucket, extraneous stuff in the trap cleaned out and bait bags inserted. He then maneuvers, usually a few feet, to a favorable location relative to the bottom, depth, and other traps. He throws the trap overboard and simultaneously hits the throttle, roaring off at high speed toward his next buoy as the sinking trap rips the second trap and warp off the stern of his boat. (Occasionally a fisherman gets a leg caught in the whipping line and is himself jerked overboard - encased in oilskins and heavy boots, he may not survive the frigid water).

-----While roaring to the next buoy, he usually measures his keepers and places them in boxes with circulating seawater. At the same time he is navigating around buoys and terrorizing the "pleasure" boaters imprudent enough to be cruising by anywhere near his water. His day continues thus, until he has lifted and rebaited hundreds of traps. His AM radio is blasting country tunes, and he sometimes carries on shouted conversations with his sternman. Lunch is hastily consumed. His only pleasure time, for some, is chatting with friends on the VHF marine radio. Woe unto any "pleasure" boater foolish enough to try to communicate by VHF on "his" frequency - crude remarks or noises will issue from their radios. The greatest fun is to imitate the "tourasst" conversation, spicing it up with obscenities or nasty references, much to the delight of the lobsterman's friends monitoring the radio. Oh, and don't try to refuel at the lobsterman's dock. Not only do they have priority, but the Dockmaster will usually run you off with a string of angry expletives.


A Medley of Boats

-----Lobstermen have been subject to sociological analysis. Well-documented studies show they are anything but independent. They often may work alone, but they work within a tightly knit social network. Their social group is composed almost exclusively of other lobstermen who work from the same harbor (they seldom know anyone from the next harbor ten miles away, and almost always think of them as "strange," or as "cunners" (small fish). Their group is usually tightly linked by kinship, VHF, jawing at the dock, and prejudice.

-----Within the group, the "highliners" are the Alpha Males. They usually have the most connections through kin. They catch the most, earn the most, and spend the most. Their success is not necessarily due to expertise alone - they often claim, unchallenged, the best fishing sites and are privy to the best fishing information from others. Competition can also be fierce between highliners. The "dubs," far down the pecking order, are usually young and inexperienced, or just can't catch lobsters, for whatever reason. They are relegated to the worst fishing areas for their traps and dare not encroach on anyone up the scale. The only folks farther down the pecking order than dubs are part-timers or a fellow "from away" who tries to become a lobsterman. It is almost impossible to become a lobsterman unless you are born into a lobstering family.

Gang Colors

-----Each harbor group has its own territory to fish. These areas are not set or recognized by the state - the ocean is legally a "common," available to all equally. Woe unto anyone setting a trap in the territory of one of the groups - his warp will soon be cut. And virtually all the nearshore water is claimed. Similarly, if one group infringes on the territory of another, there may be a lobster war. Conflict may escalate beyond warp cutting to boat sinking and physical violence. Ah, sadness - another myth rides off into the sunset.



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Good Grief (note elastics on peepel 'claws')




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