In Down East Maine, the lobster means more than seafood

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Yesterday I stood on the wharf at the lobstermen's co-op in Corea, Maine (pop. 507), and watched the boats come in. One after another they rumbled into the harbor and nudged up alongside the floating dock to unload their catches and take on fuel and bait. There were big boats and little boats, green and white and yellow boats, old boats and new boats, and they all had names on their sterns — Laverna Gail, Killing Time, Contention, Riff Raff, Ol' Grizz, Just N Case. Most were manned by solitary individuals who bantered with the co-op manager and his two assistants as they wrestled crates full of lobsters and buckets full of bait. Several had helpers, called sternmen, who made themselves useful and joined in the gossip and kidding.

Today it's my turn to be the sternman aboard one of those boats, a 38 footer called Sally Ann. The sturdy craft is named after the wife of its owner, Harvey Crowley, a barrel chested man in blaze orange overalls who, having agreed to take me on, is telling me what to do as we make the rounds of his traps. The job consists mainly, it turns out, of filling bait bags and banding the claws of the lobsters Harvey brings up.

It occurs to me more than once as I go about my tasks that, if you are not independently wealthy and have to work for a living, you could do a whole lot worse than this. The salty air is invigorating, the Maine coast is achingly beautiful and the mewing of gulls is balm to the soul. There are only a couple of drawbacks. One is the possibility that I could be yanked overboard if my leg becomes entangled in the uncoiling rope of a rapidly descending trap. The other is the malodorous tub of ripe bait fish that serves as my duty station here in the Sally Ann's cramped pilothouse.

Biologists inform us that the American lobster, Homarus americanus, which ranges from the Carolinas to Newfoundland, is not a picky eater. It dines on mollusks, crustaceans (including other lobsters) and fish, dead or alive. Most lobstermen bait their traps with salted fish parts because the rank stuff is available in bulk and easy to use. This is what I'm scooping out of the tub, fistful by juicy fistful, and stuffing into grapefruit size bags made of polypropylene mesh, each with a drawstring at the top. After I've filled a bag and yanked the drawstring tight, I lean it against the edge of the tub where Harvey can grab it.

A bona fide lobster enrichment program

Everyone knows the lobsterman takes food out of the ocean, but few realize how much he puts back in. These days, more than two million lobster traps are distributed throughout Maine's chilly waters, from Kittery and Portland in the west to Jonesport and Cutler Down East. The bottoms of many harbors are so cluttered with them that a poor lobster can hardly go for a walk without bumping into one. Each of those two million traps contains a few pounds of bait that must be replenished every one to three days. Over the course of a season, that adds up to a lot of nourishment — about 40,000 tons of it, in all.

The beneficiaries are not limited to the target species, as anyone who has ever emptied a lobster trap can attest. Crabs, sea urchins, whelks, starfish, sculpins, sea fleas and a ravenous horde of other freeloaders drop in at all hours of the day and night to help themselves. But if the trap system is primitive and inefficient, it nevertheless serves its purpose. Enough lobsters of legal size take the bait to appease the appetites of millions of Homarus lovers all over the country and to provide a significant income for many if not most of Maine's 7,362 registered lobstermen.

Why, then, is my man Harvey Crowley — husband, father, grandfather, memoirist, landscape painter, president of the Corea Lobster Co-op, president of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association — singing the blues this morning? Well, because lobstermen are overregulated, overcapitalized and overworked, that's why. Because, Harvey grumbles, "bug hunters" (by which he means scientists) and "fishcrats" (by which he means bureaucrats) think they know more about lobsters than do lobstermen who spend their entire lives on the water. Because people from Massachusetts and New York are gobbling up property in Corea and other fishing villages all up and down the coast, making it harder and harder for working lobstermen to get to the water. Those are a few of the reasons.

Harvey is straining to make himself heard over the rasping of a trapline on the drum of the Sally Ann's hydraulic winch. "I'll tell you a story, Jim!" he bellows. "Lobstering used to be fun! But all the fun has gone out of it, Jim! It's right discouraging, that's what it is!"

The discouragement is not new. It began back in the late 1960s, when lobstermen were putting out more and more traps but bringing in fewer and fewer lobsters. Some scientists said it was because they were overexploiting the resource. Since then, the number of traps in use has more than tripled. Biologists continue to fret about overfishing, but guess what? Lobstermen are hauling in record catches and near record catches year after year.

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