Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Young Lobsterman

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Is coastal fishing the last great industry serving an extended market that is owned and run by local small businessmen? I usually don't post a picture to illustrate a story, but on my visit to Maine last June I spotted a young lobsterman loading traps onto the smallest lobster boat I had ever seen. It was then I realized how special the lobster industry in Maine really is.

The boats in this harbor are all lobster boats. As the picture shows, some are three, some are four windows wide. The boat in the foreground is wide enough for just a single person. I've watched lobstermen at work. Captain and mate are a coordinated team. When they fail boats wind up on the rocks, and lines get hopelessly tangled. Finding, hauling, emptying, baiting, and dropping 250 traps is an exhausting day's labor for two men. I wanted to know what the young lobsterman loading the boat alone was up to.

I quickly learned how serious he was. Lobster permits and territory are managed by the lobstermen themselves. Each harbor has its lobstering territory and the right to set traps there is granted by the lobstermen of that harbor. Lobstermen from Bass Harbor don't set traps in the waters that belong to the lobstermen of nearby Swann's Island on one side or the lobstermen of Frenchman's Cove on the other. Only the lobstermen know the arcane rules governing the extents of each territory, the information passed down from generation to generation, honored and respected. In this way the entire coast of Maine is divided into lobstering precincts, and those who drop traps in waters where they are not licensed will quickly find their lines cut and their traps lost. The number of lobstermen fishing any precinct is strictly limited by the lobstermen as is the number of traps each may drop. A master lobsterman might be permitted as many as 800 traps in the precinct. The only way to gain a permit to set traps in a given precinct is to be a resident of that precinct and the child of a lobsterman. Thus lobstering has been passed from father to son for generations.

The young lobsterman told me he had just gotten a permit increasing the number of traps he could set to 500. The boat was his and the income was helping him put himself through college. Since meeting him I've noted more than one tiny lobster boat dropping traps, and I'm feeling optimistic about lobstering in Maine.

Once fish were so plentiful along the coast of New England that they were used as fertilizer. Lobsters could be pulled by hand along the shore without use of a trap. One by one Maine fishermen fished out all of the other catches of the area. When lobster was the only thing left, it was the fishermen who organized to create rules to prevent depletion of their last refuge. If the lobsters were fished out, there would be no more fishing industry in Maine, no work for their children. Although federal regulations cover broad issues of lobstering, it is the fishermen themselves who have implemented the most important conservation measures. The story of Maine lobstering is a model and an example.