As the top lobster-producing state in the United States, Maine’s recent record breaking harvests indicate the conscientious lobster fishing traditions of over 100 years have successfully maintained the populations of this delicious crustacean. Once so plentiful they could be fished from shore with bare hands or a spear, by the 1800s the numbers had diminished and lobster fishing had to be done by boat in deeper waters.
The backbone of coastal Maine economies for the better part of two centuries, lobster fishing is a way of life handed down through generations. It was obvious to the early lobstermen that to preserve their way of life, the lobsters had to be preserved. Much of what is lobster fishing today is driven by the need to maintain both the lobsters and the lobster fishing way of life.
Historic Lobster Fishing
Before the Europeans arrived in North America, native populations used Maine lobster as food and a plentiful source of fertilizer for crops. The lobsters were caught from shore, abundantly available in tidal pools and washed onto the beaches after a storm. With the arrival of European settlers the lobster became an inexpensive source of high-quality protein for coastal communities. Their abundance was so great that lobsters were used to feed prison inmates and the poor. It wasn’t long, though, until a taste for lobster meat in the coastal cities of Boston and New York turned a local food into a sought after commodity and lobster fishing increased to meet the demands. Special boats called smack boats with tanks of circulating seawater keep lobsters alive on their journey from Maine to the cities.
With the invention of the tin can in the mid-1800s, lobster meat could be shipped anywhere. Lobster fishing became an industry with lobster-packing canneries dotting the coast of New England. Prior to the canneries, lobstering was done with boats and gear owned by the lobsterman. The increased demand for lobster spurred a rapid increase in lobster fishing, and the canneries frequently rented boats and equipment to the lobstermen.
As technology advanced, more changes occurred. Railroads linking the entire United States provided a way to ship live lobsters packed in ice far inland, eventually causing the demise of the canneries. With the closing of the canneries, once again, lobster fishing was done from boats owned by the lobstermen.
A Solitary Pursuit
Even the largest lobster boats may have only a crew of three, two to haul the traps and one to man the wheel. Boats of 20 to 45 feet in length with a pair of fishermen are the norm. Some lobster fishing is still done from a small boat with a single fisherman.
Each morning, the lobster fishing begins before sunrise. Boats journey out, finding the distinctively marked buoys that indicate the fisherman’s traps are set below. Anticipation marks these early hours as fishermen and women hope for a good day’s harvest at sea. As dawn breaks, the traps are hauled onto the boat to be checked for lobster and the condition of the bait. Each lobster caught is inspected and measured by hand and either kept or returned to the water. Bait bags are replenished and the traps lowered back into the sea. Hundreds of traps are hauled each day; hard work especially if the catch isn’t a good one that day.
The lobster fishing season runs roughly from the first week of May through the first of December but is sometimes extended on either end by fishermen with larger boats who can follow the lobster to deeper waters. Each day is the same, hauling and checking traps and collecting the harvest. Each lobster fisherman is dependent on the season’s catch to sustain him through the off-season. Every season is different, some bountiful, some not, but each new season is met with great hope for a record-breaking harvest.
Sustainable Harvesting of Maine Lobsters
Lobster Fishing was one of the earliest harvests to be managed for sustainability. Consumers can feel good about eating Maine lobster, knowing that efforts to ensure the future of this valuable sea creature are firmly established. As long ago as the early 1870s, regulations were put into place to assure the future of Maine lobsters. Not only was the intention to preserve Maine lobsters and their habitat, but to preserve the way of life of the lobster fishermen and women who for generations have fished the coastal waters of Maine.
The earliest U.S. lobster fishing regulations concerned V-notching egg-bearing females and minimum lobster size rules. Many Maine lobster fishermen were already carrying out these practices before they became law. Any female lobster caught in traps that is berried, carrying eggs, must have a “V” cut into a tail fin and be released back to sea. If a V-notched lobster is caught again, it must be released. This ensures that breeding females are protected. Minimum size laws in Maine require that all lobsters with a carapace length of less than 3 1/4” be returned to sea where they will mature and experience at least one breeding season. Lobsters over five inches must also be released, as these are at their prime breeding age. Each lobster is measured by hand from eye socket to the lower edge of the carapace. Many days, in excess of 80% of what a Mainer Lobsterman catches is thrown back because the lobsters are either under or oversized, egg bearing or notched. Lobsters that are thrown back are completely unharmed, returned to the ocean to help bolster the healthy stock of Maine Lobsters.
Lobsters can only be caught using traps set from boats. No netting or dragging is allowed in Maine.Other methods can harm the lobster’s habitat, damage the catch and produce by catch. Restrictions are also set on fishing times. From June 1st until October 31st no lobster fishing can be done from a half hour before sunset to a half hour before sunrise. During the summer months, from 4:00 pm Saturday afternoon until a half hour before sunrise on Monday morning lobster fishing is prohibited.
Laws governing the number and design of traps were also created to promote sustainability. Each inshore lobsterman may have a maximum of 800 traps. The traps must have small escape vents so undersized lobsters can pass through unharmed and have a “ghost panel” attached with biodegradable material. The “ghost panel” is designed so that lost traps do not become death traps for the lobsters inside. The panel eventually falls away, releasing any lobsters.
Maine’s bountiful lobster harvest is the result of careful management, allowing both the lobster and the lobstermen, whose entire way of life depends on the continued existence of this crustacean, to thrive.