Episode 15: Where We're From: An Ode to the New England Lobsterman
Part One, Prelude:
It’s no big secret that I’m from New England. I grew up in Connecticut, but spent much of my childhood shuttled between various cities and villages in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, sometimes Vermont, and of course, Maine. It wasn’t until I left New England that I became proud of my New England-ness. It’s like so many things, where you only realize the impact of something after you’ve left it, or it left you, or the thing dies. Especially when you’re growing up, you just think, “This is what life is like. This is what food is. This is how people talk.” Then, of course, if you’re quite lucky, you travel and meet people from different places. You romanticize stuff that you didn’t grow up with. For many of my friends, and probably kids everywhere during the time period when we grew up, we were all like “CALIFORNIA MUST BE DOPE!” That was kind of it, though. There were all the places that I knew well, and California. Florida pretty much didn’t exist because the notion of going to Disney was absurd to my parents. This is because there is a tiny Disney ripoff amusement park in Glen, New Hampshire called Story Land. You could go there in a day and get all that you needed for like, nineteen bucks. Story Land is still there, and I’m sure it still FUCKS. Why go to Florida? That’s kind of the New England sensibility. Why go to Hawaii when you got Narragansett? Why go to Colorado when you could go to Vermont? I legitimately grew up KNOWING, not just assuming, that I would never need to leave New England because New England contained all the things. If you were feeling wild, you might go to New York City or DC, but that was a twice-a-decade sort of trip.
I’ve lived in other countries, and I live in an actual Tropical paradise (despite the best efforts of venture capitalists and real estate developers), so I understand how absurd that line of thinking is. BUT, I also love and respect it. Each time I left New England, I didn’t want anyone else to leave. I wanted the place to stay the same, and the people to be as stubborn and cold but weirdly kind. Each time I visit the place, I’m enamored with how my people live and work and eat and speak (and as a result, I’m enamored by how I, too, lived and worked, ate and spoke that way). I become an anthropologist all of a sudden. I want to see what I used to be like, and how things have persisted there for so long. When I bring partners or friends who haven’t been to Rhode Island, I force them to eat clam cakes and chowdah. I have a breakdown of every accent, how they differ, and why they’re so wonderful. I bring people to New Haven to have the best abeetz in the country (YEP!). And of course, whoever I bring to New England must eat lobster. I force it on them. I used to go to the docks in Galilee, Rhode Island and buy it right off the boat from some surly lobstermen. Pound and a quarters for $6.99.
Lobster has always been a mainstay for me. I guess I understood the broader cultural connotations of lobster, that it represented wealth or whatever, but honestly, eating lobster isn’t fancy at all. It’s gross. You rip open a giant bug's body and dip it in butter. It’s a connection to food that we don’t often have. You kill an animal by dropping it into boiling water, then dismantle its body with your bare hands and maybe a nutcracker. All of this should be done on a wet deck or by some water. I don’t think lobster fits into fancy dining establishments. Honestly, lobster’s origins are as a scumbag food, and it will always be that way for me.
Part Two, Cool Lobster fact’s:
I’m gonna be calling the people who catch lobsters lobstermen, because that’s what most sources say. I think using a non gendered demonym would be fine, but “lobsterpeople” sounded off, and “lobsterer” doesn’t have the right ring. Know that when I say lobstermen, that is a non-gendered term for those people who catch lobsters. Lobstering knows no gender, and there are plenty of women who catch lobsters commercially.
-Lobsters have been harvested commercially since the mid 1800’s. Before this time, it is clear that lobsters were plentiful and bigger in size and lived much longer than they do today. Magellan’s journals notes that these “creatures” were as thick as “molasses” in some parts of coastal water explored in the old Massachusetts territory, which is now known as Maine.
-The fishing industry in Maine is second only to timber (per capita). Whereas most pulp and paper activity is controlled by large corporations, the lobster industry is primarily still family-run. This heritage and way of life are to this day passed down from generation to generation. Although a few new technological additions have been added to the mix, little has changed in this culture since lobsters were first commercially harvested since the mid 1800’s
-What we know as the Maine Lobster might also be called the American Lobster, Atlantic Lobster, Canadian Lobster, the northern lobster, and for the biology fans, the homarus americanus. It is the heaviest crustacean in the world, and the heaviest arthropod. American Lobsters continue growing for as long as they live, and they can live to be at least 100, though age 6 is the standard for eating an American lobster.
-The Maine Lobster’s habitat stretches as far north as Labrador and as far south as North Carolina, THOUGH lobsters south of New Jersey are extremely uncommon. They think that Delaware is super tropical and they love the cold. When you think about that distribution, it makes perfect sense that Maine is the lobster capital of the world, because it’s right in the sweet spot.
-in 2021, the lobstering industry of Maine set a record value of $725 million (300 million more than in 2020), over 108 million pounds of lobsters.
-Overall, lobster fishing, distribution, and selling is a 1.4 billion dollar industry. It employs over four thousand Mainers directly and thousands more in related fields.
-Maine lobstermen account for 82% of all lobster caught in the United States. That’s fucking wild. About 4,000 people in a small, rocky, New England state are catching nearly all the lobster in the country. It’s a remarkable testament to the resilience of Maine’s natural resources and the people of Maine. HOWEVER, despite the banner year in profits for 2021, the total lobster stock is falling. There is not a straight line between how much money people make on lobster and how much lobster is actually there. Remarkable isn’t it?
-Maine lobster is shipped everywhere in the world—hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lobster is sold overseas. It depends on the year, but some years it’s 300 million, and others it’s less.
-One Maine-based lobster dealer discussed that it’s not uncommon to sell $100,000 worth of lobster to Asian markets in one night, which used to be his yearly export market haul.
-The wild thing, at least for me, is the logistics of getting the lobster from a lobsterman’s boat to a table in Shanghai. The lobsters are flown across the world so that people can pay an exorbitant price to eat them. They are put into little airplane seats, buckled up, and served peanuts and sprites while they watch their little lobster movies. That’s not true, but imagine a world. What I grew up with as an easy summer meal is someone else’s height of luxury. I know that goes for any regional product, but it seems especially absurd knowing lobsters' humble origins, which we will discuss later.
-The harvesting rules in Maine are particularly strict, and those regulations have prevented overfishing despite the mind-boggling hauls.
-Maine has a maximum size and a minimum size, obviously, and they were the first to institute a maximum size. They measure the carapace aka BODY SHELL and “anything below 3 ¼ inches or above 5 inches in length constitutes an illegal lobster and therefore an illegal take. Lobstermen are equipped with a gauge to assure lobsters are within the size requirements.”
-there are also sex requirements, of course, “Female berried lobsters (eggs) are off-limits to lobstermen, and even females who were at one time berried could be off-limits even without eggs. When a female lobster who is berried is hauled in a trap, lobstermen are required to “v-notch” the tail flipper to the right of center to indicate she was once caught as an egger.” That’s right, an egger. Isn’t that great? And “berried”? Great terms.
-Both of these requirements are meant to insure that the population continues, and up until recently, with worsening impacts of climate change, these regulations have had the desired effect.
-The largest lobster ever caught in Maine was nicknamed “Rocky,” and it weighed 27 lbs. Rocky was caught and released back into the ocean in 2012.
-As I said before, perhaps the dopest thing about the Maine lobster industry is that it is primarily a local business, run by regular-ass local folks, who happen to catch a product that everyone in the world wants. It hasn’t been hijacked by venture capitalists and turned into the aquaculture equivalent of luxury condos, and god-willing it never will!
-This is a labor of knowledge and love. It is an expression of love for the landscape and environment. I know that can seem counterintuitive, but consider that without lobstermen, what might have transpired off the coasts of Maine. What interests might those waters have been opened-up to? I’m not saying that there aren’t destructive aspects of any fishing industry, but there’s also much to be said about the role of stewardship. Yes, lobstermen are out there to make money, but they’re also protective of the water, the coast, and the species that they catch and, oftentimes, release (due to strict regulations).
Part three, A history of lobstering in Maine:
-We know lobsters primarily as a source of food. Because they are. This is a food that I grew up with, and I don’t remember my first lobster experience, but I remember how much I loved sucking a tiny bit of meat from the legs. Legs are the lobster intro for a kid. Then claws, then the body. In the American lobster section of wikipedia’s lobster entry, there is a ridiculous paragraph under the “lobsters As Food” category. Just listen to this:
“One common way of serving lobster 'tail' (actually the abdomen) is with beef, known as surf and turf. Lobsters have a greenish or brownish organ called the tomalley, which, like the liver and pancreas in a human, filters out toxins from the body. Some diners consider it a delicacy, but others avoid it because they consider it a toxin source; dislike eating innards; or are put off by its texture and appearance, that of a grainy greenish paste.”
-First of all, how cute that “surf and turf” is one of the first things mentioned here. It’s talked about as some ancient artifact in another language from centuries ago. “It seems that the natives called it SURF AND TURF. How peculiar!”
-I found some DOPE history on Maine’s lobster industry from “Cool Lobster Fact’s”.com. But I actually got great info from lobsterfromMaine.com and Penobscot Marine Museum.
-Maine Lobster is one of the oldest continuously operated industries in North America, with the first documented catch dating back to English settlers in the 1600s.
- “Before the Europeans arrived on the shores to settle in the “New World”, the Mic Mac (Mi’kmaq) and Maleseet Indians of Atlantic Canada had been fishing the seas for lobster for hundreds of years. Long ago, lobsters were so plentiful that they often were found on the beach at low tide, and would wash up on shore in large storms. [lobster] was a source of food, fertilizer, and ornamental material.”
-it’s from these indigenous groups of what is now New England and Canada where the classic New England clambake came from. To prepare the lobsters to eat, Indigenous people would cover them in seaweed and bake them over hot rocks.
-When Europeans first arrived, lobster was plentiful and huge (older records state that they were regularly 5 lbs). However, since there weren’t shipment methods for lobsters, and they must be killed immediately before eating, there wasn’t any market for them. They were used mainly as bait or fertilizer.
-The first lobstermen caught lobsters with spears at night time. They’d throw cod heads out into the water and the lobsters would swim to the surface. However, because lobsters with marks on their shells sold for less money (I have no idea why), lobstermen began using traps.
-THIS is one of the most annoying “New Englander facts” that everybody knows, but I have to say it: “People who consumed the most lobster at this point were prisoners, apprentices, slaves and children. In Massachusetts, some servants added to their contracts that they would only be served shellfish twice a week because they were being fed so much lobster.”
- “In the 1820s fishermen developed the smack, a boat with a wet well for carrying live lobsters. The smack allowed fresh lobsters to be delivered to Boston or New York, and the market grew.”
-The American lobster did not achieve widespread popularity until the mid-19th century—at one time, possibly due to the kind of ready availability that doesn’t appeal to elite consumers, lobster was more commonly eaten by the poor.
-Eventually, as rich people started to like lobster, the value of lobster increased, and in the 1840s, Maine established its first commercial lobster fishery
-Also in the 1840s, CANNING seafood became super hot on the block. Everybody in New England was canning cooked seafood, and people loved it. This turned out to be a problem without environmental regulations! IMAGINE THAT.
- “By the 1880s, lobsters were being overfished. Twenty-three canneries processed over 9 million lobsters, and many said the fishery had peaked in the 1870s. Maine imposed strict regulations limiting the catching of female lobsters, shortening the fishing season, and limiting allowable size range.”
-The railroads promoted further lobster distribution, as people could pack rail cars with ice and moist seaweed and the lobster could remain fresh on voyages across the country.
-The technology of the lobster industry has changed, but it’s not as significant as many other industries. For instance, most people aren’t hauling up traps from the deep ocean with their hands anymore, because they have simple machines to do that. The traps are a bit more durable and made of metal, but the design is ultimately the same.
-In a great article from VisitMaine.com about this Maine lobsterman named Herman Coombs, we get an idea about the day-to-day life of most Maine lobstermen: “Herman nets between 200 and 1,500 pounds of lobster. As a lobsterman in Maine, you must accept inconsistency and understand that if today's catch disappoints, tomorrow's will be better. Lobstermen in Maine are able to set a legal maximum of 800 traps, but most aren't able to tend the full 800.”
-Lobstermen wake up super early, and they’re usually on the water by 4am, and they’re in the thick of the work by 6am. Distinct buoys signify each lobsterman’s traps, and these buoys are important for several reasons:
-From Visitmaine.com: ”The buoy in Maine lobster culture is the nautical equivalent of a Medieval knight's coat of arms: Each lobsterman paints his own design in his own color scheme on his buoys, effectively marking his trap territory. Just as family crests became intricate works of art, the lobsterman's buoy is an example of functional art born out of necessity but made iconic through its innate aesthetic worth.”
-Obviously, I had to look up how much lobstermen earn, and the amount varies quite a bit. It depends on your rank, if you own a boat, if you’re just a guy pulling traps, but according to industry data, the top earners make about $60,000 and the average is $31,000. If you’re in the lower tier, you can’t get by comfortably on a lobsterman’s wages. Lobster season is pretty much year-round, but June-December are the high-months.
-Lobstering is a labor of love. It’s tough work, and it requires intense knowledge and skills. It’s not a guaranteed win. You could break your back and fall short.
Just gotta say this: Climate Change and environmental shit is changing the lobster industry:
-In the past few years, lobster populations that used to hang out in Southern New England have moved north to Maine and parts of Canada in search of cooler waters. Our climate is fucked to shit, and the lobsters are running away. Of course, the issue here is that the lobsters can only run so far north, right? Once the temperatures become too warm in Maine, American Lobster populations will be greatly diminished and possibly disappear.
-Even though Maine has been REALLY GOOD at sustainably harvesting lobsters, there isn’t much any single state or person can do to significantly mitigate climate change. We are so interconnected that the thousands of ways we dump carbon into the air has trickle down effects on every local economy, regardless of that economy’s carbon contribution.
Part four: The End
-It seems that the history of lobstering in Maine represents a lot about why I’m proud of my New England heritage. It’s a bunch of kindly and cold folks who care about their craft and pursue it despite the world changing around them. It’s still old-fashioned and gritty, but not in the fucked up way. It’s old-fashioned in the way that you clean up your mess, you leave something behind for the future, and you take care of your own.
-Maine lobstermen are known to be fiercely protective of their oceans and their communities, which is how we should be. I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the industry, but the bones of this practice are aspirational. Where so many industries have fallen to corporate takeovers and the numbing effects of faceless capital, the Maine lobsterman has a face. A ruddy, smiling, windswept face.