In Down East Maine, the lobster means more than seafood

Lobsters in a tank at a fish market
Lobsters in a tank at a fish market Wikimedia Commons

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.

For many veterans like Harvey Crowley, the good news only confirms the bad: the so called experts who advocate the imposition of stiffer controls on lobstermen don't know what they're talking about. "They got a law passed here in 1995 that limits the number of traps a man can haul," Harvey says, taking a lobster out of a trap, measuring it with his gauge and handing it to me. "They've been talking for years about restricting the number of people who can go into lobstering," he continues, rebaiting the trap and shoving it overboard. Harvey has a deep voice that sometimes breaks unexpectedly into a warbling falsetto when he's expressing heartfelt indignation. "And now they want to tell us when we can fish and where we can fish, to boot," he warbles, throttling up the engine and heading for the next black and white buoy. "Well it's not right, Jim, and I'm going to fight it."

Once upon a time, before there was a Lobster Club restaurant in New York City, a Lobster Pot restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and a Red Lobster seafood chain all across the country; before there were roadside stands peddling lobster rolls in Maine and tanks displaying live lobsters in supermarkets everywhere you go; before there was an alternative music band in Minnesota called Lobster Boy and an off Broadway play in Manhattan called The Lobster Reef; before lobsters began showing up on license plates, shirts, hats, coffee mugs and other souvenirs; before the actress Mary Tyler Moore offered to pay a restaurant a "ransom" of $1,000 if it would liberate a 12 1/2 pound, 65 year old lobster it was holding captive; before humorist Dave Barry declared that he could see no difference between the lobster and the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach; before, in short, Homarus became a wildly popular luxury food, an icon and the subject of numerous controversies, there were a helluva lot of lobsters around. Tens of millions. Who knows — maybe even billions. So many, in any case, that you would have had a hard time convincing New England's settlers that future generations of Americans might actually worry about running short.

They had lobsters coming out of their ears in those days. The goofy looking critters could be plucked from tidal pools and gaffed by the dozens in shallow waters. After storms they were found washed ashore in great heaps that organic gardeners (everybody was an organic gardener, back then) pitchforked into wagons, hauled away and used for fertilizer. Bunyanesque individuals weighing more than 40 pounds were unremarkable, as were stories about monsters five and six feet long.

With its 4,568 miles of coastline and thousands of near shore islands, Maine was ideally suited for lobstering which, by the mid-1800s, had become a major industry there. The typical lobsterman, however, was content to operate pretty much as a part timer. He had plenty of other things to do.

Famously self reliant, the inhabitants of coastal Maine farmed and gardened, hunted, fished for halibut and cod, collected oysters and crabs, dug clams, cut trees for lumber and fuel. They went lobstering mainly in the spring and fall, usually tending no more than a few dozen traps near shore in rowboats or small sailing craft. They made their own gear. They didn't owe anybody anything. If a lobsterman didn't feel like hauling, he stayed home. "Take a tuck in my gumption, Junior," he might tell a friend, "them lobsters are on t'me. Let 'em wait a day."

Bigger boats brought in bigger hauls

The 1940s and '50s were a time of transition. The demand for lobsters soared, and servicemen returning from World War II had no trouble financing the purchase of gear and a boat. By then, the lobster boat was evolving into a highly specialized vessel with a powerful inboard engine, a cabin, a hydraulic hauler and fancy gadgets like radar and a depth sounder that would make it possible to fish more traps in less time. In 1951, Maine lobstermen hauled nearly 400,000 traps to catch 20 million pounds annually. That was roughly twice the number of traps fished a decade earlier.

Lobstering was still pretty low key in Corea when the writer Louise Dickinson Rich began living there in the mid-1950s. "It was just a little harbor, a scooped out basin in the pink granite, surrounded by high posted wharfs, each with its shack for gear, and by the unpretentious houses of the region."

The description is from The Peninsula, an evocative book Rich wrote about Corea and its environs. In those days the tiny Down East hamlet, situated at the eastern end of the Gouldsboro Peninsula, consisted of several dozen families. There were only a few stray summer people. Of the 30 or so boats moored in the harbor, not one was a pleasure craft. Every man in town held a lobster fishing license, with four exceptions; three were retired lobstermen.

Many of Corea's children were born in, and many of its older folks died in, their own homes. Some of those homes had running water, but many did not. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners and the like were luxuries. There were three lobster buyers in town; the present day co-op was run privately by a genial fellow nicknamed Twink. There was just one store, and it shared space with the post office. Both were run by Herb Young, the fourth of the exceptions noted above.

A Corea lobsterman might run 150 to 200 traps, which he made himself out of wood. Buoys, too, were handmade and painted in the owner's distinctive colors, often by his children. You could buy a lobster boat back then for around $4,000.

Rich's pithy characters were loners, like lobstermen everywhere, but whenever someone was in need, they responded. On one bright July afternoon, the entire community turned out to attend a memorial service for a man named Raymond Dunbar, who had disappeared while fishing alone. The service was held in the white church on the hillside that overlooks the harbor. "There were none of the grimaces of easy grief upon the rugged faces. . . . Only when Raymond's family . . . took their places did a small sound, more like a sigh than a murmur, sweep the assemblage."

The circumstances that enabled the residents of Corea and many other fishing towns to, as Rich put it, "live lives of more than surface contentment" were changing. To cover their increasing overhead and expenses, more and more lobstermen had to work full time most of the year. They started fishing farther, deeper and more intensively than ever before. They were catching lobsters, yes, but they were losing something, too. They were losing their go to hell independence.

In the early 1970s, the bottom dropped out — or so it seemed. Despite the huge increase in fishing effort, the overall catch went into a tailspin. State experts attributed it to cooling water temperatures, about which they could do nothing, and to overfishing, about which they wanted to do a great deal.

Maine had a number of lobster-conservation laws on the books, including a prohibition against taking reproductive females, but Robert Dow, the crusty longtime director of research in the state's marine fisheries department, didn't think they were enough. He advocated a significant increase in the minimum size limit, because, as a biologist, he believed the best way to produce more lobsters was to enable more females to reach sexual maturity. He also wanted to eliminate the maximum size limit, which made no sense to him as a conservation measure. Finally, he believed it was essential to limit numbers of traps and fishermen.

Lobstermen, inherently suspicious of government officials and other overeducated individuals to begin with, had a predictable reaction to Dow's ideas. They hated them. Increasing the minimum size, they said, would reduce their catch and drive them out of business. They didn't want anyone telling them how many traps they could haul. As for putting a cap on lobstering licenses — "limited entry," it was called — whoever heard of such nonsense?

One of the many things about which scientists and lobstermen disagreed was the lobster itself. Lobstermen insisted that lobsters "migrate"; a number of early scientific studies indicated otherwise, though more recent research has confirmed that a certain amount of seasonal movement does take place. Lobstermen said lobsters didn't eat urchins; scientists said they did. Lobstermen were convinced that the big ones living in deep offshore waters constituted Maine's primary "brood stock"; scientists once derided the notion but now believe there is some truth to it.

Something else that added to the confusion over the years becomes obvious to me while I'm carrying out my duties here on the Sally Ann: all lobsters are not alike. It's not just that they vary somewhat in coloration, size and shape; they behave differently, too. Some are wimps who submit without resistance to banding, which is necessary to prevent them from tearing each other apart with their claws, whereas others are warriors.

Take this feisty two pounder I'm holding in my hand. First it grabbed several bands in its big crusher claw and refused to relinquish them. Now it's flailing the same claw about so wildly I can't even begin to slip a band over it with these weird rubber band pliers which, let's face it, take some getting used to. At Harvey's suggestion, I grasp the creature higher up.

Just as I get the claw under control, the band slips off the pliers and zings into the bait tub. Then somehow I end up with a piece of my sleeve snagged in a pincer. "Don't get your finger caught in there or you'll wish you hadn't," Harvey cautions.

Enough. This lobster is making a monkey out of me. I wrench my sleeve free, steady the claw between my thumb and index finger, slip on the band and triumphantly drop the troublemaker into the barrel with the others. Hasta la vista, baby.

By the mid-1980s, many lobsterme — particularly in the populous western section of the coast — had begun to have second thoughts about regulatory reforms. They knew there were too many traps in the water; they had to pick their way through them every day. They also knew there were too many lobstermen. Full timers complained about part timers, old timers criticized newcomers, small operators who hauled 300 or 400 traps resented the big ones who hauled upwards of 1,000.

Eventually the Maine Lobstermen's Association (MLA), the largest and most influential trade organization, came out in favor of limited entry, license fee increases and an apprenticeship program. But that didn't sit well with many lobstermen Down East. They didn't share the westerners' concerns about congestion and overfishing. They did not wish to pay higher fees. Trap limits and limited entry remained as repugnant as ever to them. And so, feeling as they did, they started up their own organization, which they called the Downeast Lobstermen's Association (DELA) and which has, ever since, adamantly opposed many of the measures that the MLA and the state have backed.

Hardly anyone is happy with the relatively few adjustments Maine lawmakers have made in recent years, including a slight increase in the minimum size and the imposition of a 1,200 per person trap limit. Scientists say the minimum size is still too small, and nearly everyone agrees that the trap limit is much too high. "The whole situation has become so politically engulfed that you can't even talk about limited entry anymore," says Jay Krouse, Dow's successor as the state's lobster biologist.

Two decades ago, when some scientists were warning of a "collapse," Maine's annual catch was down to 18.5 million pounds. During the past several years, it has held steady at around 35 million pounds. Obvious question: If the resource is overfished, how come it's yielding such huge landings?

Krouse offers several explanations, including rising water temperatures (lobsters are more active and grow faster in warmer water) and better reproduction due to the increased minimum size. Not to be overlooked, he adds, is the "handout" factor — that tremendous load of salted sardines, mackerel and God knows what else that lobstermen dump overboard each year as bait. In effect, Krouse says, each of those two million plus traps is a Pizza Hut for any lobster small enough to swim in, gorge itself silly and swim out.

Whatever the reasons for the upsurge, it does not help Krouse and like minded scientists make their case, which basically is the same case Robert Dow attempted to make. But they keep trying. "You have to remember that in spite of the high yields there's one thing that hasn't changed," Krouse says. "Year in and year out, most of the lobsters we harvest have just reached the minimum legal size. That means we're nearly wiping out an entire generation every year. There will be a very long recovery time if we finally succeed in pushing this resource over the brink."

Maine accounts for about half of the nation's lobster catch. The six states that haul the other half have, together with Maine, asked the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regional oversight board, to do what they themselves have thus far been unable to do--come up with a plan to control lobstering pressure that applies to all state controlled waters. A parallel effort is under way to develop new restrictions in federal waters.

Who will do the right thing?

What's at stake in maine is not just lobsters but the lobstering way of life — or what's left of it. Town after town and village after village has been tidied up and transformed into something a tourist might like. Prime waterfront property is occupied by retirees, vacationers and other CFAs, as the natives refer to people who Come From Away. The lobstermen live in the woods, often miles from where their boats are anchored. Selling the family home in town was for many the only way to stay in business, or get into it.

It's a given in Maine today that you need upwards of $200,000 to start out in lobstering — $100,000 for a good used boat, $40,000 for gear, $50,000 for a trailer home (and a place to put it) and maybe $10,000 for a used pickup truck. In the old days, you didn't jump in all at once; you started small and paid your own way as you grew. You knew how to keep a dollar in your pocket. But these aren't the old days.

Take Corea, for example. It's as beautiful as ever it was — maybe even more so. The houses are nicely landscaped and painted, and there are more of them; some even have picket fences. The yards aren't cluttered with traps, buoys and other gear, the way they used to be. The co-op is the only place in town that buys and sells lobsters. Herb Young's store has long since gone out of business.

Now they are the last of the natives

0ne of the few working lobstermen who still live on the harbor is 81 year old Raymond Dunbar, Jr., the son of the man who disappeared 41 years ago. Dunbar resides near the co-op with his wife, Nat, in the house that once belonged to his grandfather. The houses the Dunbars grew up in are located directly across the water. Nat can see both places from her customary vantage point next to the kitchen window, where she keeps an eye on the local goings on with the assistance of her binoculars.

"We used to know everyone who lived in every house," she tells me when I stop by to chat one afternoon. "Now only a few natives are left. Pretty soon this won't even be a fishing village anymore." There has been tension between old timers and newcomers. "One of them used to call the town manager at 5 in the morning to complain that the sound of the lobster boats going out woke her up," Raymond says, shaking his head in disbelief.

The Dunbars' two sons are lobstermen, and Raymond and Nat worry that their "boys" are under too much pressure. "Gory, I used to figure if I made $25 in a day, that was the week's groceries," Raymond says. "Now they're not content with $250 or $300." "They want instant wealth," Nat chimes in. "But you know what? I don't think they're as happy as we were."

Harvey Crowley lives out on Cranberry Point Road, past the Young Brothers boatyard and about a mile from the secluded oceanfront cabin once occupied by Louise Rich. The wharf at the harbor where he parks his truck and keeps his dinghy is just minutes away. At 64, Harvey plans to cut back some, but he still keeps 550 traps in the water and has plenty of extra work to do as the DELA president.

Last year, lawmakers in Augusta took a significant step toward decentralizing lobster management. They divided the entire coast into zones and authorized local councils, made up of lobstermen and legislators, to vote on things like trap limits and harvest times. Mike Brown, a prominent Maine writer and lobsterman, damns the plan as a "grand sham" that Balkanizes the coast. A state marine fisheries scientist calls it "a case of putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop." But the MLA is for it and so is Harvey. "It gives the lobsterman some say," he explains. "It allows for regional differences." But zoning does nothing to alleviate lingering concerns Down East about limited entry, which some scientists continue to regard as essential. "There are no jobs for young people around here," Harvey says. "Anyone who was born Down East and wants to stay here should be able to go into lobstering, the way I did, but limited entry would make that impossible. A license could be worth $100,000 or more. Add that on top of what it already costs to start out and no youngster could break in unless he was rich or worked for one of the big corporations that inevitably would take over."

Growing up on Beal's Island, near Jonesport, Harvey never questioned what he was going to do for a living. When he was a baby, his parents put him in a cardboard carton and took him out hauling. When he was older, he and his playmates pulled their toy boats on the tidal flats, setting out miniature traps and pretending periwinkles were lobsters. Older still, he started going out with his mother in a rowboat to haul real traps, and pretty soon he owned a skiff with an outboard motor. He was on his way.

Now he's one of the old timers, singing the blues. And the thing that bothers him more than anything else is the lack of respect scientists, bureaucrats and politicians have for what he calls "the inborn essence" of lobstering. "It's something you have a feeling for," he says, touching his chest. "When you start hauling in the spring, where you set your traps, when you move 'em, where you move 'em — you have to know your bottom and what's going on down there."

If lobstering isn't as much fun as it used to be, there must be some other reason why so many people want to do it. Actually, there are two. The working conditions aren't half bad, as I discovered for myself, and the money is pretty good. The typical full timer operating out of Corea clears $40,000 or $50,000 a year hauling 500 or 600 traps, and there's more to be made catching tuna and diving for urchins.

For Harvey, it comes down to this: after all these years, he still loves to go fishing. He's a man to whom the routine of getting into a dinghy at 5 a.m., paddling to his boat and clambering aboard has long since become second nature. He plunks his blue and white cooler, containing lunch, a snack and several Cokes, onto the bulkhead in the Sally Ann's pilothouse, starts the engine (thrum! thrum!) and, while it's warming up, steps into his overalls and pours himself a cup of coffee out of his thermos. Then he flips on the CB radio and casts off.

Once we clear the mouth of the harbor, Harvey bears right toward Cranberry Point and the waters beyond. The morning is gray and calm, and fog starts rolling in as we work one group of traps, then another and another. We don't see many other boats, but we can tell from the chitchat on the radio that they're all around us. The Dunbars' youngest son, Greg, who is nicknamed Fat Albert because he's so skinny, is a major presence. His youthful voice provides a running commentary, of sorts, as he hauls his traps. He takes a lot of ribbing from the others. "Hey, did you see that movie on the TV last night?" (No, Albert.) "I heard Billy has a new girlfriend." (What happened to the old one, Albert?) "Boy, it's gettin' right soupy out here." (Whaddya know, Albert just noticed it's foggy outside.)

Harvey's wife, Sally, checks in. "How's the new sternman doing?" Harvey responds laconically: "Oh, not too bad. Wants seasoning, though." Sally says: "Danie has a tennis lesson at 3:30. Can you take her over?" Danie is their 13 year old daughter, Danielle. Harvey says: "Yes, love, I'll see to it."

The day is done before I know it. Harvey is a steady worker, but between hauls he has been able to tell me how he feels about a great many things, and now it's time to go home. We head back with a barrel full of lobsters, rumble into the harbor and nudge up alongside the co-op.

The manager and one of his helpers, a wiry fellow with close cropped gray hair and a mouth as straight as the edge of a ruler, amuse themselves by giving Harvey a hard time before they unload and weigh his lobsters. The helper wants to know if there's any soda on board. Harvey nods at a can of Coke in the pilothouse. "Well hand it over then, dammit, and don't shake it up none, either."

Harvey does his best to look aggrieved. "They abuse me something awful, don't they Jim?" he warbles. Then, out of the side of his mouth: "Well, that's the way it ought to be. I like it when they give me a hard time, I really do." He fetches the Coke, gives it a dozen hard shakes and tosses it to his grinning tormentor.

By Jim Doherty

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