The lobsterman is what sustains the economic viability of many of Maine’s coastal and island communities. This historic way of life is passed from generation to generation along the coast and on the islands, and pride in its long history and their family’s place in it drives many a lobsterman to continue working in this difficult and unpredictable occupation. That, and love for the sea and the independent life of a lobsterman.
Life in a Lobster Fishing Village
Many of the small island communities scattered off the coast of Maine are almost exclusively dependent on the lobsterman for their existence. The island villages may have only a post office, general store, a school, and a church or two. Almost the sole occupation on the islands is lobster fishing, and the success of the lobster fishing season affects the entire village. During the summer months, the population expands as summer residents come to enjoy the quiet of island life. Winter months are long and sometimes lonely. Close-knit, the island communities rely on each other for almost all their social needs. Many of the smaller islands are completely dependent on water transportation to the mainland for many of the necessities of life, from clothes to medical care to an occasional movie at the theater. Lobstermen often volunteer their services to shuttle people who can’t wait for the daily mail boat to get to the mainland. They also play major roles during the winter in helping with what needs to be accomplished in the community.
Along the coast, small fishing villages are not as isolated, yet they are still dependent on the lobstermen for their economic success. Summer tourism plays a part in many of the communities, but the backbone of life in the villages is the lobster fishing tradition.
Seasonal Flow of Life
The lobster fishing season begins in early May, and each lobsterman and woman greets the new season with great anticipation. Will the lobsters appear earlier this season? Will the traditional fishing territory for the community be more productive than last year? Hope and dreams of record catches fill the days before the season begins. After a long winter of boats stored at the local boatyard and gear stowed away, much needs to be done to prepare for the first day on the water. Lobster boats, lobster traps, ropes, and buoys all need to be cleaned, repaired, and ready for the season. Inshore lobstermen are limited to 800 traps, each one needing to be checked, repaired, and moved to the boat.
Hard physical labor accompanies almost all the tasks of a lobsterman. Their hands and backs take a beating. Cold saltwater, nicks and scrapes, and the heavy load of traps all contribute to the aches and pains of being a lobsterman. Although some of the chores have been mechanized, few haul the traps entirely by hand, most of the job requires tough, manual labor.
A great sense of independence is felt by a lobsterman. Lobster boats generally have a crew of just two, although some of the bigger boats have three, and some tiny boats are handled entirely by one lobsterman. This is not a job where a distant corporate boss relays commands down through a series of managers. The captain of the boat makes the decisions, and must also live with their consequences, good or bad.
Throughout the lobster fishing season, from May to December, each day starts before sunrise. Boats leave harbor in the semi-dark to haul hundreds of traps each day. Checking for lobster, rebaiting the lobster traps, and lowering them back into the sea, fills each day. The lobster traps are heavy, wet and filled with bait, and sometimes a bounty of lobsters. Although the tasks are the same, day after day, weather conditions are constantly changing, traps may be empty or brimming with lobsters, or occasional breakdowns may happen.
Working at sea is dangerous; if there is an emergency lobstermen will risk their own lives to help a crew in trouble, however sometimes help may be hours away. Unforeseen weather conditions have caught lobstermen at sea, capsizing boats. Freak accidents can cause the loss of life or limb. Almost every lobster fisherman knows of families devastated by tragedies at sea.
It is not all work, though, in the summer months. Great pride is taken in their lobster boats and many communities enjoy lobster boat races, testing the boats and lobstermen. Lobster fishing is prohibited on Sundays during the summer months so these days are reserved for family and community enjoyment.
Many of the lobster fishing spots have been unofficially passed down through families and communities and are guarded from outsiders encroaching into the waters. Fishing in waters three miles from shore is regulated by the state, beyond the three-mile limit out to 200 miles, fishing is regulated by the federal government. Most lobstermen fish within the three-mile zone, close to shore, although there are some who fish farther off shore during the winter months. Communities are close Knit and rely keenly on their local fishing grounds. Newcomers generally go through an apprenticeship with an established fisherman to be accepted into the fleet.
By the end of the season in late November, the lobsters are on the move out to deeper waters and many lobstermen are ready to haul their boats up until the spring. Winter is the time for all the chores at home that couldn’t be done during lobster fishing season. It’s a time to work on the boats and plan for the next season’s needs. Those who remain lobstering offshore follow a sporadic schedule determined by what weather will allow.
In an effort to build a strong voice for lobstermen and women, many have banded together forming both local and statewide associations. Island fishermen, from families with long histories in the local lobster fishing industry, form associations to discuss, promote, and research issues affecting their locality. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, a statewide group, has been fighting for the protection of both the lobsters and the lobsterman’s way of life since its formation in the mid-1950s. As the largest association of its kind, the group uses its member’s experience, scientific research, and community connections to try to balance the issues of conserving the Maine lobster and remaining an industry with economic viability.
From these groups come many new ideas that ensure the sustainability of the Maine lobster and the lobsterman in the 21st century. Along with sustainability and conservation, the exploration of fuel options with a lower carbon-footprint, the preservation of marine habitats, and new concepts in marketing, are at the forefront of issues facing the lobsterman.