Strange Maine

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Lobstering in Casco Bay

This article appeared in the spring issue of the Gazette, but I figured you all might like to read it online, too!  Enjoy...
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Lobstering in Casco Bay
Article and all photos (c)2010 by Michelle Souliere.

Last year I decided that one of the things I needed to do as the voice of Strange Maine was to spend some time on a working boat. So much of Maine’s economy and history has been driven by what one can pull in on a boat. I thought to myself, “How can I possibly understand this context unless I’ve been aboard?”

Luckily, I know some folks who are out there making their living this way, and found a crew that was willing to take this landlubber out during their daily lobstering work. While I realize that it is impossible to get a clear vision of the entirety of the working fisherman’s life from such a small glimpse, I’ll do the best I can to show what I saw that day and what I learned afterward.

With Brian Murphy’s assistance, I met with Tom Marr, who owns the Blue Dolphin II, and on a cold mid-November morning we set off from Long Island, from a mooring in Harbor De Grace before the sun rose to see what the day would bring us.

The first thing I realized is how close I was to the frigid water while sitting in the dinghy. That underlying awareness never really recedes once you’re on the gray November waters, whether it’s in a dinghy or a 36-foot boat. I’d wager that it doesn’t ever go away, even if you’ve been out on it for years.
Brian Murphy baiting the needles in the gray morning light.


We got on board the Blue Dolphin II and chugged out into the open water. Brian worked through the early morning blear by prepping the bait needles – pulling salted redfish and pogies out of a big black plastic vat and sliding them onto long, wood-handled metal needles, each with an eyelet at its tip. Bait needles work kind of like a backwards needle threader – the line from inside the trap goes into the eyelet at the tip, and the bait fish are pushed down the needle until the line threads through them, and then the line gets tied back into the lobster trap. The pogy is technically called the Atlantic Menhaden, though I don’t suppose you’ll ever hear that name out in the harbor!

We spent most of the day circling around in Casco Bay, pulling up lines in different spots, locating each on a list of coordinates kept by Tom in a well-worn notebook. Depending on where we were, we could see different angles of Outer Green Island, Junk of Pork, Cliff Island, and even the Ram Island Ledge lighthouse which lies off the coast of Cape Elizabeth.
Junk of Pork, off the shore of Outer Green Island.

Each time we located one of Tom’s fluorescent green buoys, the boat would slow to a stop. Tom would reach over with the gaff hook and drag the line and buoy up into the boat, running the line through the winch. Then the stringer, usually carrying 9 traps along its length, would be hauled up from the deep one trap at a time, making the boat pitch as it fought to stay in place with all that weight dragging against it from below.

Brian grabbed the buoy as it came aboard and dunked it into a tank of steaming water, heated by a coil. By the time they’d finished hauling up the stringer, a lot of the algae and other sea growth that had attached itself to the buoy and its rope had been cooked to a point where it was easy to clear it off with a big scrub brush. In the cold November water, the accumulation wasn’t too bad, but during the summer it could go out of control easily as the water warmed and plant life flourished.
Tom Marr pulls a trap on board after the
winch pulls it up from below.

As each trap emerged from the ocean, dripping streamers of salt water, Tom reached over and hauled it up onto the edge of the boat by hand. Opening the trap, he quickly sorted through the various lobsters, crabs, and occasional other sealife to see what qualified as keepers. Most of the trap contents were tossed back in.

Stray fish, crabs, and peculiarities such as sea mice were easy to pick out and return over the side. Smaller lobsters, obviously undersize, were another easy elimination, as were v-notched lady lobsters who were known breeders, and eggers -- female lobsters carrying a heavy coating of tiny dark eggs under their tail. Any lobsters of a more mature size were set aside into a handy milkcrate, where they waited to get the official word from the little brass ruler used to measure their carapace to see if it was too big, too small, or just right for keeping.

As each new trap on the line came up, Tom would pass the previous one along the side of the boat to Brian for more picking and for rebaiting. Once the trap was tidied and rebaited, Brian would swing it into place on the stern for its return to the water.
A sculpin gives me the hairy eyeball before he
gets tossed back in the drink.

A few minutes pass while Tom maneuvers into place to drop the stringer back down into the deep, where most of the traps will land around 100 feet down after they’re settled. They’ll stay there for the next few days, hopefully attracting lots of fat lobsters. The trick is to find a spot the lobsters like without crossing your line over another fisherman’s string of traps or into his general territory. Good fences, even invisible ones, make good neighbors in Casco Bay as elsewhere.

At this stage in the game, as the long wet line begins to slide off the boat more and more quickly, the most important thing to keep track of while you’re setting out a stringer of traps is where the other parts of the line are. You don’t want to suddenly find you’ve stepped into a loop of rope that is about to zip you into the freezing cold of Casco Bay.
Brian swings the traps onto the stern.

For the fisherman, this goes on and on, all day long, zigging and zagging between navigational points. Occasionally another boat, such as Skip Werner’s Foxie Lady, would come within earshot, and a holler and a wave came across the water. Other boats were visible in the distance, tending their traps, and the chatter on the radio came in small waves, which ranged from checking how many totes of bait were needed for the end of the day to commentary on whatever current event was on folks’ minds.

Tom and Brian got a good chuckle out of telling Skip I was along from the New York Times for the day. The radio got much quieter after that!

The sky shifted from leaden to glaring greywhite to pearly streaks and back, occasionally raining. The surface of the water changed appearance constantly, variations on a rippling or choppy theme. The sloshing of the seawater that pumped constantly into the holding tank was background noise, occasionally spilling onto the deck as the boat turned and maneuvered into position to pull the next buoy up. The smell of salt water was pervasive but was buried easily under the heavy competition of baitfish and sea sludge. Everything was in motion, all the time, either the boat or the ocean or both, and even the horizon line seemed unstill as the halted boat pitched and yawed at each buoy stop.
Each lobster has to be measured
with a regulation brass rule. If it’s
too big or too small, it cannot go
to market, and is tossed back.

While it seems there is a certain peace in time spent on the open water, it is an illusion, for underneath it all moves the changeable ocean, and her ways are many, strange, and strong. Let the unwary beware.

By late afternoon the catch had filled the better part of the on-board holding tank with lobsters, and Tom headed off with the boat to get the day’s haul weighed and to pick up some totes of bait for the week ahead. The grey day had gotten darker, and I was happy to be heading for shore. Standing around on a lobster boat when you aren’t the one throwing the heavy traps around gets cold pretty quick, and since I didn’t feel confident enough of my sealegs to venture astern much, that’s exactly what I was doing. Brrr!

At the weigh-in, the day’s catch came in around 200 pounds. After dumping totes of fresh bait fish into the bin on board, Brian shook a hefty amount of salt over them. The salt system of preservation has been in use for centuries, and still does the trick. Even in the cold weather, baitfish need help to stay fresh long enough to get them into the traps.

Tom got started as a fisherman in a roundabout way. When he was only 5 or 6 years old, his father took him out on a trip to help pull traps for a friend down by Southport Island (near Boothbay Harbor), “and that just stuck in my head,” Tom recalls. “Then as I got older, I don’t know how old, maybe 10 or 11 years old, I remember building my first lobster trap out of an orange crate. I threw it off the back porch. You know, in a make-believe world.”

Tom keeps a sharp eye on the water and his gauges as he
takes the Blue Dolphin II to the next buoy.
The early and continual exposure to the ocean, the waterfront environment and all the activity that surrounded it made a lasting impression on Tom Marr. By the time he was 15 he had a chance to haul lobsters on his own with a friend out of Falmouth Foreside, running a little skiff for the summer as a team, and with the return to fishing, Tom says, “that really got into the blood, for sure.” The rest of high school passed without much fishing, though, and was followed by a stint in the Navy. But as soon as he finished his duty, Tom was back in Maine and working as a sternman on a lobster boat.

It was in the back of his mind all the time that he wanted to lobster, and so he did as soon as he had the chance. Decades later, he continues his work.

Like other lobstermen, early in his career he found himself without winter work. He switched to steadier jobs, but he was always out on the water, from working on Casco Bay Lines’ boats in the 1960s, to Harbor Supply’s oilboat, to tugboats, and back to lobstering again. Since about 1980 he’s lobstered full time.
Skip Werner and his sternman aboard the Foxie Lady.

In 1985 or ’86, Tom and his wife Sharon moved out to Long Island for good, after going back and forth from one or another mainland residence on a seasonal basis. This allowed them to do away with unnecessary commuting, and committed them to something few people experience – the loneliness and cold of the Maine island winter. As Tom says, in the winter, “you’ve got to keep busy.” Not many people stick it out, and many that do find a way to visit somewhere warm and southerly for at least a week or two to make the winter pass more quickly. Tom estimates only about 150 people stay on Long Island on a truly year-round basis, while in the summer the population fluctuates to upward of 1,200 people.

I asked him about concerns that lobstering won’t last. He laughed. “They’ve been saying that for 50, 60 years. My father-in-law said it.” Which is not to say that things will remain as they are now. “The question is can it sustain the population that’s fishing it now?”

The smaller lobsters are the feisty ones. Tom figures it might
be because of the wily, finger-crushing ways of young lobsters
that the entire breed earned the nickname “snappers.”
Certain regulations are in place to help weigh the trade against the depletion of the lobster population. Some are statewide, and some vary depending on location within the Maine Lobster Zone Councils’ jurisdictions. In Casco Bay we fall into Zone F, which runs from Cape Elizabeth’s Two Lights in the south to Small Point in the north (just below of Popham Beach). According to Tom, Zone F has a 5-in-1 ratio for replacement of lobstering licenses. In other words, before a new license can be issued, 5 need to be retired. This should reduce the overabundance of boats currently fishing the region, and balance it more appropriately over time.

Tom operates a 36-foot boat with himself and one sternman aboard. He estimates that the majority of the local boats are running similarly sized crews. Only a few of these crews run all the way through the winter, and those that do often carry two sternmen instead of one, “because it’s safer, it’s harder weather.” The winter storms keep the boats in port an unpredictable number of days, and sometimes weeks in a row go by without passable weather. Some fishermen won’t pick up the season again until May.

Tom lets one of the big guys
stretch his claws before he
goes back into the water.
One of the advantages of only bringing one helper is obviously low overhead cost, but as Tom jokes, “the best way is to go alone, there’s no overhead!” Captains will pay helpers in a variety of ways, most often either a percentage of the haul or a flat daily rate. Tom believes most of the island boatmen use the percentage method, a way of encouraging their crew to be more attentive to their work and use of time, “because the more they catch the more they’ll make.”

Noticeable on the boat is the lack of downtime. Even in between hauling stringers, the helper’s time is spent measuring and banding the previous traps’ haul, hosing down the muck that comes on board from the muddy traps, and whatever else needs attending to as the captain steers the boat toward the next buoy’s location, pivoting his attention between the ocean and his equipment readings, leaving
nothing to chance.

I of course asked Tom if he knew any ghost stories, or had any interesting tales that Strange Maine readers might get a kick out of. While he couldn’t think of any haunting legends offhand, I did find out that the biggest lobster he’d ever caught was over 2 feet long, right out back of Long Island, and there were a few other odd items that came up with his traps over the years, some animate, some inanimate.

In 1994 Tom pulled up a piece of helicopter windshield in one of his traps after that year’s tragic crash when poor weather hampered a med-evac transfer of a burn victim from Ellsworth to Portland. The pilot, operating at higher than normal altitudes to gain visibility, ran into turbulence which increased the flight time to the point that the copter ran out of fuel and crashed into Casco Bay only 8 miles north of Portland, killing the patient, nurse, and paramedic on board. The pilot survived.

In 2004, Tom was surprised to fi nd a buoy moving around in an odd way. “It looked like something was snarled up on the end. I thought I’d picked up a rock, or a log or something, or seaweed.”

As the line came up, wrapped in the slack of the line was the neck and flipper of a gigantic leatherback turtle, clearly annoyed by the event. Tom guessed the turtle was about 6 feet long, as he and Arthur, his helper, pulled him gently up to the surface. Their main concern was to undo the line and set the creature free, which the turtle helped hurry along by repeatedly smacking Arthur with his huge flippers. (I bet Brian was glad he wasn’t around for this abuse!)

Last year, in 2010, Tom spotted the unmistakable tail of a thresher shark making its way through the bay. He was surprised, since larger predators are not often evident this close to shore. “I haven’t seen a shark this close in a long time.“ Smaller sharks such as dogfish are often around, and more of a nuisance than a danger. Dogfish show up in the traps after they try to get at the bait inside. “They get in, and they’ve got a spine in their back, atop their tail, and they get snarled up in the net when you’re trying to get them out.” Of course they’re fighting with the fishermen as they’re trying to get them out of the trap, just to complicate matters. “The only thing you worry about is that horn, you know. You’ve got to be, because you could get an infection. The teeth aren’t much to worry about.” The best bet is to grab them by the tail.

The Blue Dolphin II at its mooring in Harbor De Grace.
So now you have a snapshot of one part of Maine’s traditional life and livelihood. When I asked Tom why he keeps on lobstering, he told me it was either because he loves it, because he’s foolish, or both. It’s different from a 9-to-5 job, and within its compass you find self reliance, camaraderie, and competition, each element showing strong in the mix. Whether this is a way of life that is disappearing is anyone’s guess. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of new lobstermen cropping up, and the lobsters keep showing up too.

As Tom put it, “I guess there will always be a lobster in the water.” And there will always be someone who wants to catch it.

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