The Lobster Trap

Indispensable to the lobster fishing industry, the lobster trap is a unique creation, designed specifically to both catch lobsters and to ensure the continuation of this historic coastal industry.The Lobster Trap

Lobster Trap Design

Whether the lobster trap is traditional wood or modern wire, the design is basically the same with possible variations in the number of chambers and doors. Lobster traps usually have two main inner compartments, accessed through doors. The door to the lobster trap is specifically designed to be a one-way entrance. Round in shape on the exterior wall of the trap, the door enters a funnel, called a head, made of webbing that narrows towards the interior. Attracted by the smell of bait inside the trap, the lobster cautiously enters the door and travels through the funnel. The first “room” the lobster enters is the “kitchen” where lobster-enticing bait is hung. Bait may be fresh or salted fish on a line or tied in a hanging bag. After the lobster enters the kitchen, it grabs a piece of bait with its claw and begins maneuvering towards an exit. It is difficult to go out the way it entered due to the design of the funnel. As the lobster continues seeking an exit, it passes through another funnel leading to the “parlor” or “bedroom” in the rear of the trap. Here, the larger lobsters become trapped. Some lobster traps have more than one kitchen and parlor. All have a large latched door at the top of the trap so the lobstermen can access the interior to bait the kitchen and remove the lobsters. The lobster traps are carried out to sea on lobster fishing boats, lowered to the seafloor by ropes attached to floating buoys that mark the position of the traps for later retrieval.

Lobster Trap Design
Specifically designed to allow the release of undersized lobsters, the parlor has at least one small exit hole. Required by lobster fishing regulations, the small exit hole allows young lobsters to leave the trap, mature and mate, thus ensuring the continuation of lobster fishing. Another safety feature incorporated into the traps is the “ghost panel.” This is a biodegradable section that will deteriorate over time, allowing lobsters caught in lost traps a means of escape. Long before sustainability became a fashionable trend, lobster traps were designed to promote the sustainable harvesting of this gourmet seafood treat.

History of the Maine Lobster Trap

Lobsters were considered a plentiful source of food from the sea long before the European settlers arrived in New England. So abundant, they were often washed ashore and simply collected by American Indians from the beaches. Early settlers used nets cast from shore or hunted the lobsters in shallow waters using spears. Wire cages, modeled after traps used in Europe to catch other crustaceans, were devised since spearing the lobsters damaged them. Another type of early trap was made from netting stretched over discarded cart wheels. These developments left the lobsters free from damage and brought better prices for the fishermen.

With the invention of the tin can in the 1800s, lobster fishing became more than a subsistence activity, developing quickly into a major industry along the New England coast. Canneries dotted the coast and lobster fishing expanded. Efficient and plentiful traps were a necessity. What we recognize as the familiar wooden lobster trap was developed on Cape Cod in the first decade of the 1800s.

The Handmade Wooden Maine Lobster Trap

Wooden lobster traps are the quintessential symbol of life along the Maine coast. The wooden traps, or lobster pots as they are also called, were handcrafted of wood and intricately knotted twine. Woods that were rot resistant were preferred, with hemlock being a favorite. Other woods commonly used were spruce and pine. The traps ranged from two to three feet long and were made in two main styles, the rectangular and half-round.

Wooden traps were constructed of pieces of wood lath, the same that was used beneath the plaster walls of homes, about one inch in thickness. The lobster funnels were made of knotted twine. Half round traps were wood lath on top and bottom attached to a framework of bent wood or twigs. The half-round end panels were of knotted twine or wire mesh. The round doors on all traps were made of bent wood, twigs, or twine and entered into funnels of knotted netting. As the traps were handmade, each was a unique creation. Designs varied with some lobstermen preferring multiple kitchens and parlors, while others made lobster traps with a single kitchen and parlor.

Once the traps were set out in the ocean, wooden buoys attached to the trap by rope floated on the waves so the lobstermen could find and recover their traps. Each lobsterman used a unique set of colors for the buoys. Many of the old buoys are hand carved and painted.

Modern Maine Lobster Traps

Towards the end of the 1970s, modern wire lobster traps were replacing the traditional wooden ones. Made of plastic coated metal wire, the traps are resistant to corrosion and weathering. They are sturdy and lighter in weight than wet wooden traps. Made in a rectangular shape, they are easy to stack aboard the boats. Still using the traditional design of funnel doors, kitchens, and parlors, they are also made with escape holes for undersized lobsters. Designed for efficiency, durability, and harvest sustainability, they are a mainstay of today’s industry. Modern buoys are brightly colored Styrofoam, and each one is stamped with the identification number of the lobsterman who owns the trap.

Building Traps

Many Maine lobstermen spend the slower winter months building their own traps in their “shop”. Buildings that have long been quiet during the summer come to life, their owners now spending much more time on the land. The wood smoke that curls from their chimneys is a sure sign that trap work is underway. Since Lobstering is in many cases a family enterprise, you may often find fathers and sons, wives, daughters, and good friends working together to build the traps from both wood and wire. Although the general design of traps is similar, each lobsterman has their own preferred specifications and nuances.  These small alterations vary from the angle and size of the twine of the kitchen heads, to the size of the funnel hoops, to the size of the trap, and are always the subject of much discussion and prediction. Throughout the winter work the lobstermen await the eternal light of spring when their traps will be launched and their labors’ fruit realized.

A Symbol of Coastal Maine Heritage

Beyond their utilitarian use for lobster fishing, wooden lobster traps have come to represent the essence of coastal Maine. Used by interior designers to lend a touch of nautical nostalgia to a coastal cottage or sleek Manhattan apartment, it seems the uses for antique lobster pots are endless. Their rough, gray, weathered wood, representing years of exposure to seawater, salt spray, and sunshine, is enormously appealing. Representing the allure of the seacoast, lobster traps can be seen strapped to the roof of many a car headed out of Maine.

Lobster Trap TreeSeveral towns in Maine erect lobster-trap Christmas trees to honor the lobstermen who make their communities strong. The cone-shaped stack of traps is decorated with greenery and lights and adorned with a variety of colorful buoys. These unique Christmas trees are a colorful way to celebrate the heritage of coastal Maine, so intricately linked to the lobster industry.

Whether utilized for catching lobster or as an item of home décor, the lobster trap symbolizes the independence and hard work of the Maine lobstermen.