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Hi, welcome to my blog. I'm a writer of poetry, prose and plays but my best known work is children's fiction. My most popular books are the Selby series and the Emily Eyefinger series. This blog is intended as an entertaining collection of thoughts and pictures from here in Australia and from my travels in other parts of the world. I hope you enjoy it. (For more information have a look at my website.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Maine lobstah

The lobster catch is down this year because the water is colder. Through the winter the lobsters go into deep water and hide in mud. When the water gets to a certain temperature they come in closer to shore, start foraging and get caught in lobster traps. If they're big enough---but not too big and not an egg-bearing female---they could end up on a dinner plate.

Lobster sweatshirts and live lobsters for sale at Shaw's Restaurant in New Harbor, Maine.

The only legal way to catch lobsters in Maine is with traps of a specific design, by lobstermen with the right licence and then there are volumes of regulations depending on which area is being fished. As with most commercial fishing, it's hard, cold and dangerous work and the people who do it are from families who have been doing the same for generations.

A typical Maine lobster boat.

I've visited the coast of Maine since I was a kid so I've seen the lobstermen working and I've bought many lobsters. A few years ago my curiosity got the best of me and I managed to get invited along with a lobsterman for a day, working as his sternman. This was a real privilege. The local lobstermen have always had an uneasy relationship with people "from away" (those who haven't lived in the town for a hundred years and, worse still with "summer people"like myself). And lobstering isn't the sort of thing they want an outsider to see at close hand.

The South Bristol Co-op.
This particular lobsterman---friend of a relative who is a local---said he could use a hand for a day. His wife was his usual sternman (men and women are both called "sternmen") but she said she didn't want to go out into John's Bay during the "roly-poly". A strong swell had been predicted for the next day.

Lobsterman looking for his buoys.
The lobsterman finds his buoys (the local pronunciation is "boo-ee" and never "boy"), pulls the traps into the boat, and throws the small lobsters, crabs and bottom-feeding fish back in the sea. The sternman takes out the old bait if there's any left and throws it away and then re-baits the trap. On my day the bait came from a barrel of very ripe alewife, a kind of herring. It was my job to spear them with a bait needle, weaving a string back and forth through each fish and then tying it in place in the trap before the trap was thrown overboard again.

Sorting the catch at the end of the day.
Click here to watch lobstermen sorting a day's catch. 

We set out sometime between four or five a.m. I'd asked before hand what I should wear and the lobsterman hesitated before saying in his very slow Down-East accent: "Nothin' good".  I hadn't intended to wear smart casual but when I got to the boat he handed me bibbed overalls to put over my grungy jeans and sweatshirt. For a short time I think I could have passed for the real deal. Well, at least to someone from away.

A customer at the South Bristol Coop.

Once we hit the roly-poly---and it really was---I began to realise why Mrs sternman wasn't so keen on this gig. It is a real art to staying upright when using both hands to spear fish and bait traps when it's wet underfoot and the boat is constantly turning broadside to the waves. It also wasn't long before I started regretting my breakfast of hash browns, bacon and eggs. I noticed that the captain only nibbled the odd dry cracker all day long. I spent hours sliding around like a drunken jitterbug dancer while struggling not to do the old technicolor yawn and reprise my breakfast.

The wooden half-round traps of my youth have been exchanged for
rectangular wire ones. This display is at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

Lobstering is not only a skill bordering on a black art but it's also a very clannish profession. There are only so many lobsters down there and the thought of letting a newcomer drop traps in the lobstermen's yard is not always a welcome one. A turf war a couple of years ago in Maine ended in a couple of lobstermen shooting each other.

Once in a blue moon a blue lobster is caught.
In addition to the very restrictive rules and there's etiquette. For example: you don't drop a string of traps in an east-west orientation when others have set theirs north to south. Lines can get hopelessly tangled and much valuable time lost sorting things out.

We asked my grand niece not to play with her food.
Buoys are colour-coded and most lobster boats display one of their own buoys so that other lobstermen can see that they're only pulling their own traps. And god help anyone---especially a total outsider---who pulls a trap that isn't their own.

The Bath Maritime Museum has an excellent exhibition on the lobster industry.
And it has a lot more. Well worth a visit.
For those in the business who break a rule of etiquette there can be warnings. Back in the village nothing might be said to the offender but if he finds a simple half-hitch knot in his buoy line he can be sure there's a reason for it. If warnings go unheeded, a lobsterman might be "cut". The errant lobsterman goes out and finds his buoys floating free and his traps stuck irretrievably on the bottom of the ocean and goodbye investment.

Inland Mainers (not "Maniacs") hated the lobster licence plates. There were
also those who thought a dead animal was inappropriate as a state symbol.
There is now a choice of images.

On my day out, I'm guessing that we would only have caught forty or fifty lobsters, a lower than usual catch, I was told. When you consider the overhead of maintaining a lobster boat, it may not have been a break-even day.

At today's prices and exchange rate, the average lobster
costs about $A15.00 per kilo.

This is the cost of lobster at the Sydney Fish Markets. And they don't even
have front claws where the best meat is.

Lobsters used to be so plentiful that the local Native American's---okay, Indians---used to put them on their crops as fertiliser. And from the early 1600s when there were English fishing stations on the off-shore islands, it was cod, not lobster, that they were after. In early colonial days the lobsters were fed to the help because they were cheap. At one point servants in Boston rebelled and refused to eat lobster more than three days a week. It's a delicacy now but I can't imagine being forced to eat lobster all the time.

A happy gathering...although maybe not so happy for the lobsters.


Richard Tulloch said...

I always thought lobster was the most overpriced substance known to man, Duncan, so it's good to know it's available at a reasonable price somewhere in the world.

In Ireland last year we were told it used to be considered the food of poor people who couldn't afford real fish.

Also, I just read somewhere that, genetically speaking, humans are more closely related to fish are more closely related than fish are to lobsters. I bet you knew that already.

Excellent post and see you soon


See you soon.

Duncan Ball said...

Thanks, Richard. Lobster is certainly not over-priced in Maine, although my relatives there constantly complain because they remember when it was two cents a pound or some such price in their youth. They are delicious---not my relatives but the lobsters---but I'm glad to be more closely related to fish than lobsters.

Lana Patterson said...

Hi Duncan ... Thanks for the interesting blog on Maine Lobstahs! My in-laws loved Maine and traveled and camped there every summer for many years. One summer our little family spent a week with them there (they would usually stay at least 2 weeks there). I came to love everything about Maine ... the rugged coastline, the fog, hiking trails, amazing sailboats built there, the museums, gardens and, of course, the food. We ate "lobstah" several times that week and it was absolutely the best lobster I've ever eaten.
Glad to hear that you've been having a great vacation with your extended family.
All the best ... Lana

Duncan Ball said...

Hi Lana, Thanks for the favourable comment on my blog. I have to admit that almost anything about Maine---especially if there are pictures---make it easy. It's such a beautiful and fascinating place.