Homarus americanus; The North American Lobster, is characterized by large size, meaty tail and claws (as distinguished from “Rock Lobster” which can be found often in warmer waters, and which has only tail meat). Last fall, I posted “When in Maine . . . Do As (Eat Lobster).” Shortly afterward, I was contacted by a non-profit organization, devoted to the Lobstering Industry, with a request for use of one of my photos. Flattering. But more importantly, as I perused their website, it piqued my interest in writing something about this industry.
In “real life” I make my living advising clients about Estate Planning and Business Succession. Many of my clients are involved in the food production industry (ok, farmers 🙂 ). I have always had a keen interest in all things related to nature, plants and animals. So, to me, my casual conversation with Dave, a Lobsterman returning from a day’s work was strongly reminiscent of my family farm “roots.” These are largely small, family businesses, much like most farming. Dave told me that during the season, he would be on the water from just before sunrise (I think they can start to pull traps sometime just after sunrise, so they need to be ready), often until sunset. On a summer day, those are some hours! Many of them do it 7 days a week.
Lobster with a capital “M”
While lobstering is done over much of the North Atlantic Coast, from Long Island to “Down East (Maine),” the large majority of American Lobstering occurs in Maine. I am often guilty of being (innocently, even if ignorantly) parochial. So I tend to think of Maine for Lobster and Vermont for Maple Syrup, for example. But the clear majority of Lobster caught worldwide is “landed” in Canadian waters, from Maine to Newfoundland (about 62%, according to the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute). Maine is the next at 38% (approximately 62% of the U.S. catch), followed by Massachusetts at 18%. Understanding the Major role they play in the industry, Maine Lobstermen participate in a number of ways in marketing and promoting their livelihood. One of the primary vehicles is through organizations like the Maine Lobster Council, which devotes its activities to educating the public and regulatory bodies about vital industry issues and promoting the industry with news about lobster events.
Like some other sectors of the food production industry (notably, dairy), they have had some tough economic times in the past couple years. Boat price for these delectable crustaceans is low. New equipment regulations take their toll (in recent years, rope that sinks to the bottom has been mandated, to protect whales from becoming entangled). While a worthwhile regulation, it makes it difficult to impossible to grapple it up, if lost. One Lobsterman notes that if you lose one of these series of traps (referred to as a “trawl”), represents a $1,000 equipment loss.
Sustainability is Key
The first recorded catch, according to the Institute, was around 1605. I am guessing native Americans already here were catching and eating them before that, and may have even showed “us” how.
It takes from 5 to 7 years for an average lobster to grow to the legal size to harvest. A Maine lobster at minimum legal size (3 1/4 inch carapace – from just behind the eye on the head, to the tail section) weighs in around a pound. According to the Lobster Institute, a freshly laid lobster egg is about 1/16″. A 1-pound female lobster carries an average of 8,000 eggs, A 9-pound upwards of 100,000. The eggs remain inside for 9 to 12 months and then are carried for another 9 to 12 months externally attached under the tail. [link to LI page]. Sounds like a lot of eggs. However, the important part is how many of them live to viability, without predation. I couldn’t find any statistics, but I’ll bet a significant proportion do not. (For more lobster “biology” see The Lobster Conservancy.)
Clearly, a key to the Lobstering Industry is long-term sustainability
So, clearly, a key to the Lobstering Industry is long-term sustainability. To that end, there is a fair amount of government regulation, but perhaps more notably, self-regulation, voluntary compliance and community action. According to the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, Lobstermen have marked egg bearing females with a “V” notch in their tail fin and returned them to the sea since 1872. This is still a current practice. When a lobster with a “V” notch is caught, it is thrown back (eggs or not). In the United States, it is law that a lobster with a V notch may not be kept.
Of course, like other fisheries, there is a minimum (and maximum) size, which is generally regulated by each state, as well as a traps (also called “pots”) per Lobsterman limit.
The Federal Government has (surprise) its part, too. “The Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act” (Title 16, USC, “Conservation” Chapter 71) authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to regulate coastal fisheries, including lobstering. Its stated purpose is “to support and encourage the development, implementation, and enforcement of effective interstate conservation and management of Atlantic coastal fishery resources.” The Act authorizes the “Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to promulgate fishery management plans. It empowers the Secretary to impose a moratorium on fishing if states to not comply. It also empowers the forfeiture of vessels in certain instances where their owner does not comply with law. That certainly is enough for the owner of a several hundred thousand dollar boat to take notice!
For many years, the weathered, wooden trap was symbolic of the Northeast and Lobstering
For many years, the weathered, wooden trap was symbolic of the Northeast and Lobstering. In the 1970’s wire mesh traps began rapidly replacing the wooden traps. Much lower maintenance, the new wire traps are lighter (about 40 lbs. vs. 125 lbs. for a wet, wooden trap). At the same time, because of their lack of buoyancy vs. wood, they are much “heavier” in the water, making them more easily handled. According to the Institute, a typical trap costs between $45-$60. These days the traps also feature a biodegradable “ghost panel.” The purpose of this is to eventually biodegrade allowing a large space for lobsters to escape from lost traps (known as “ghost traps”). While the new traps don’t have the quaint, photogenic quality the wood traps did (we had to do some searching to even find a stack of wooden traps), they are colorful. Lobster traps are baited with any food that might attract the Lobster. The most popular bait is herring.
These boats have characteristic “fishing” lines, including, typically, a wide stern, open cockpit in the back of the boat; and rails (sides) which slope downward from bow to stern, with higher fronts managing the seas, and the rear closer to the water (freeboard) to facilitate hauling of traps. Lobster boats commonly range from 22-45 for most inshore lobstermen (“inshore” means they go out during the day and come back into port each night – “offshore” will go out to sea for several days and obviously require larger boats). Starting in the mid six figures and an up, these craft are a substantial investment.
I know that the next time I enjoy a lobster tail, I’ll eat with a different perspective
When I visited the working harbors of Bernard and Stonington in October, 2009, what my eyes saw were quaint, picturesque communities nestled in the hills behind a harbor full of colorful, photogenic boats (you can see more of my shots of these magnificent harbors here). What I have come to realize is that – like all of the agriculture and food production industry, these folks are sophisticated business owners who understand the legal, financial, technical and biological aspects of their business and who–daily–risk life and fortune. But, unlike many business ventures, its much more than “just business.” Like family farming, it’s a way of life. I know that the next time I enjoy a lobster tail, I’ll eat with a different perspective. Thanks, Lobstermen!
See a brief video on Lobstering in Maine: