The months of June and July are a blur from traveling and warm-weather activities. As many of you know, I’m spending my summer in Maine, so when I’m not working on my dissertation, I indulge in my not-so-secret-crush: the American Lobster (Homarus Americanus, to be exact). Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to spend some time aboard a lobster boat out of Port Clyde, Maine, the F/V “Ruthless,” owned and operated by Justin Thompson, a fifth-generation lobsterman whose family dates as far back as the nineteenth century (see 1926 Hampton Newsletter here).
Today’s post is a preview of several articles I’m writing that bridge together Maine’s lobstering industry with the food traditions of my childhood. For my first-hand account of lobstering, the industry, and its people, please read on. I promise, more lobster recipes will soon follow (especially your request for a tested Lobster Roll recipe!).
To those who helped make this post possible—Port Clyde lobstermen, my sister, and my family, thank you all.
Fishing off the F/V Ruthless
The loud snap of rope pulled tightly through a hydraulic trap hauler spins violently as a forty-pound wire lobster trap emerges from the ocean. Industrial plastic-covered wires somehow resemble Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, donning the forest green, canary yellow, and purple colors of Mardi Gras. In spots, you can see where time and lobsters have scraped at the walls, boxing off the plastic with their claws. Exposed wires are now crusty from rust and old seaweed picked up off the ocean floor. This trap looks nothing like the refurbished lobster trap coffee table we used to huddle around as kids—the one with its imperfect dimensions and dull grey boards. Yet the two possess that remarkably pungent scent of bait and seawater, no doubt having something to do with the porous funnel-shaped nets known as “heads.”
Pictured: pulley system for hauling traps on the F/V Ruthless.
Pictured: modern lobster traps with plastic-covered wire mesh screens. Containing the same setup as twentieth-century wooden traps (see endnotes for the “kitchen” and “parlor”), modern traps represent changes to lobstering technology and sustainability trends. Since the lobsterman is his own boss, it’s important to note that many fishermen build their own traps and repair them at home.
A relatively new invention from the 1980s, architecturally sound rectangular traps offer today’s lobster fishermen increased efficiency when trapping. Because their structures are impervious to the decay of wood-eating worms, the traps require less upkeep. Less time spent maintaining traps means more time spent hauling. In the past, lobster fishermen spent winters building their own traps, soaking and bending the wood to produce their curved tops. The Fernald family off Maine’s Little Cranberry Island can remember making only 20 to 30 traps in one winter. By the 1980s, when the same family opened the Cadillac Trap Company, their great-grandsons were able to build 1,000 wire traps in the first year, a noticeable difference from the days of dial fathometers and wooden claw plugs.
But, I can still see the two square chambers that makeup the kitchen and the parlor: the former where the bait is strung (typically, herring), and the latter where the lobster can most often be found after snacking on a free meal. This trap houses two female breeders with carapace’s just under 3 1/4 inches in length, three crabs, four conch shells, and half a dozen spider crabs. Between them, two ravished herring skeletons swing in wet bait bags, as their juices drain onto the deck. As per the minimum size law amended by the Maine government in 1992, the females will need to be thrown back and “v-notches” must be cut into their tails if bearing eggs. Seeing us, the ladies raise their claws in protest, flipping onto their walking legs. The crabs scurry.
Pictured: 1st sterman, Eric, measures the carapace length of a freshly caught lobster. Specially made double-sided gauges can be found at most Maine hunting and outdoor supply stores. Legal “keepers” must measure between 3 1/4 to 5-inches in length, up a quarter of an inch since the 1980s-1990s when federal scientists aimed to raise the legal size limit to 3 1/2-inches. Read more on state regulations here.
Pictured: double-sided stainless steel gauge. Note the two sides for measuring the carapace: 3 1/4 inches (smallest legal size, bottom) and 4-inches (“select” size, top). Other measurements include the 1/4-inch v-notch ruler at the end and the 5-inch length overall.
Pictured: bags of herring used for bait. Herring runs about $1/head and $44/tray (2 bushels). To read more about price changes to herring supplies and issues with (possible) over-fishing, see Melissa Waterman’s article on “Bait Prices” here.
Pictured: an Atlantic Ocean crab contemplating his capture….
It’s a July day in Maine, and I’m here with my twin sister, Haley, girlishly giggling at the unexpected surprise of a trap suddenly being pulled from the water. Justin Thompson, a fifth-generation lobsterman out of Port Clyde, Maine, has generously taken us out on his boat, the F/V “Ruthless.” I’ve never met Justin before, but I feel as if I know him. Like the lobstermen of my childhood, he possesses a confident, but quiet reserve, dark tanned skin, and noticeable powerful upper body strength from years of pulling and throwing traps into the ocean.
No doubt, part of Justin’s familiarity stems from his remarkable kindness, willing to answer any of my questions (half of which I’m sure are either naïve or silly), as he steers Ruthless around kayakers and the Marshall Point Lighthouse. Justin points to where the movie Forrest Gump filmed the end of its epic running sequence right when Tom Hanks addresses his group of runners—“I guess I’m done now,” and quits.
Pictured: 5th-generation lobsterman, Justin Thompson, gaffs and pulls the line leading to his trap. Here, the hydraulic hauler hoists the trap out of the water, but only after a considerable amount of effort on the fisherman’s part. If anything, this picture evokes part of the physical labor required in hauling traps from the water. On any given day, Justin might do this 200 to 300 times. Shot with Sigma 17-70, f/2.8-4 Macro Lens.
Decelerating the boat’s motor, Justin brings us to a stop at the edge of Bar Island, a cozy, grassy piece of land owned by his family. A small grey cottage and a 10-year-old RV show signs of past 4th of July parties and family life, just a few steps from where a boat has run ashore after a major storm. Pointing to the vessel, Justin says, “the kids love playing on that thing,” and Haley suggests they set the boat upright so it can be made livable. But the boat has since become one of those wild things—proud seagulls reside on its decks, squawking and waddling across the floorboards. Their grey and white heads turn rapidly as they let out impatient screeching caws, watch us, and hop onto the rocks surrounding their squatter’s palace.
Being on the Atlantic Ocean in mid-coast Maine, 2,000-miles from my home in Baton Rouge, LA, I am finally, once again, beginning to feel like that curious kid from Rockland, ME. I’ve been hungry for this moment since I decided I couldn’t handle another humid 100-degree summer. After publishing my first book this spring, The Fresh Table: Cooking in Louisiana All Year Round, I have spent more time with crawfish than lobsters in the last five years. In many ways, lobsters and crawfish aren’t really that different—they possess certain behavioral patterns that are remarkably alike, superficially similar anatomy, and have been the longtime friends of the same Acadian population once founded in Maine, but now dominant in Louisiana. In fact, when you boil either a lobster or crawfish, both turn bright red due to carotenoid pigments in their shells. But when it comes to flavor, the Louisiana freshwater crawfish has nothing on the naturally buttery meat of Maine lobsters’ claws, knuckles, and tails. The fact that Louisiana crawfish must typically be “purged” before cooking speaks to the wide difference in texture, flavor, and nutrition between the two crustaceans.
Moments later, Justin declares, “This—is God’s country.” I stop cold: the last time a lobster fisherman spoke these words—also behind his boat’s helm—I was eight-years-old. I had looked at him with amazement and asked, “Is God a lobsterman?”
I was completely serious.
At the time, this seemed like a logical question seeing as I had been taught in Sunday school that God created the earth and the oceans and on the seventh day he rested. Growing up in Rockland, Maine, it was impossible to imagine anyone more powerful than the men who I actually believed owned the oceans while manning their boats. Plus, on the seventh day, they rested too.
Of course I don’t say this to Justin, but think about the generations of men he calls up with one comment. I think of lobstermen.
Pictured: Justin Thompson (left) with first sterman, Eric (center), and second sterman, Chris (right). Each fisherman performs a specific task in the hauling and setting of traps whether it’s navigating, hauling, banding, sorting, or re-baiting.
Consider the Lobsterman
Pictured: second sterman Chris enjoys a cigarette after sorting at the dock.
When getting to know Justin, I was thrilled to find out we had read the same book—The Lobster Gangs of Maine by James M. Acheson.
I had pulled the navy blue volume from the shelves at LSU’s Middleton Library in May, blew off the dust, and noticed I was the first person to check it out since 1997. Looking at Justin’s copy, the volume showed a well-read tome about his own fishing culture. The book opened at its most purple pages, and whole sections indicated some kind of water damage under crinkled passages and warped chapters. Clearly, this was a book he had read…a lot.
I am not a lobsterman. I am a writer, a PhD student, and a cookbook author who has a serious, should-be-treated-by-a-professional obsession with lobsters. And, as a woman who is not a lobsterman, I can sum up this community of coastal fishermen this way:
Lobstermen are badasses, incredibly hard workers—no, make that “unbelievably” hard workers— whose lives are dominated by “Mother Nature,” capitalism, and community. The next time a freshman composition student complains that their 1,200-1,500 word essay is just “too much work,” I hope I can keep from scolding them. I hope I don’t show them a picture of Justin.
Pictured: what real hard work looks like—Justin Thompson hauling a trap onto his boat.
Trying to explain a similar emotion to Justin, I compare him to Johnny Appleseed: “You’re like a great American frontiersman, like Johnny Appleseed.”
My remarks are meant to be a compliment that assigns mythic agricultural importance to his work on the Ruthless. Or, at least, understand his existence as the last of the hunter-gatherers, a relic of coastal Maine’s colonial development when access to boats, rope, and fish could determine a whole family’s ability to survive the winter. Today, we’ve forgotten these far-off worlds. We shop for chicken and beef in supermarkets that have lined up cold cuts under glistening shrink-wrap. Unnaturally large chicken breasts reflect years of hormones and cost management. All contain some level of preservatives and all represent convenience, sustainability, and twenty-first-century eating trends. But not the work of the lobsterman—he has and always will be a reminder of his community’s past, riding out storms, outsmarting the water and its inhabitants, and doing what he can to prepare future generations access to limited resources. In some ways, he really is like Johnny Appleseed.
Justin laughs, replying, “I’ve been called worse.”
But I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Acheson describes lobstermen as the “quintessential American,” like a lost generation of masculine rustics—farmers, cowboys, ranchers, and fishermen. The only difference between these men and the lobsterman is that lobster fishermen have managed to preserve fishing traditions and avoid unnecessary change when possible no matter how much modernity moves us or commercial fishing forward.
Pictured: freshly trapped soft shell lobster being removed from the trap.
Today, the Maine lobsterman still hauls traps six days a week, passes on his skills and equipment from generation to generation, and lives in well-established fishing communities.
He blends ancestral knowledge with new technology while navigating an incredibly complex subculture of fishermen.
He is powerful both physically and communally and exists in a large community that is real and, partially, imagined.
Oh, and did I mention that lobstermen are deeply entrenched in the mating and life cycles of a species hardly any of us understand, but almost all of us want to eat? Whether a community of lobster molts, mates, or migrates can affect a lobsterman’s entire year, not just what’s on your plate or mine.
Pictured: Justin and his men watch as a trap lowers rapidly into the water.
But as romantic as these visions of the past may seem, who or what the Maine lobsterman is today may not always follow these traditions. Between federal and state regulations, new scientific research, and economic trends, the lobster industry regularly meets with new players wanting some part in its business. Although space limits me from discussing the complex relationship between Maine and Canada or the cost of shipping Maine lobster internationally, I can use one example that hits close to home for many Port Clyde fishermen: L. L. Bean. When the New York Times reported Linda L. Bean’s new enterprise to make the Maine lobster as accessible as “Purdue chicken,” they remarked that “Ms. Bean, 68, is not universally loved in the insular, male-dominated lobster industry, or in Maine as a whole.” Walking around Port Clyde, you can hear any number of references to “Linda” from the restaurants she owns to the wharfs she operates. Here, Bean purchases freshly caught lobster straight from the lobstermen themselves at Port Clyde Lobster, acting as a third party middleman between the fishing community and big businesses.
Pictured: an image of Linda L. Bean’s wharf, Port Clyde Lobster (formerly Bay Lobster Company).
In the same article, the New York Times also reported that Bean bought up 5% of the state of Maine’s annual lobster haul last year. 5% may seem like nothing, but it actually represents a considerable number of pounds (anywhere from 6.2 to 15.8 million depending on which commissioner numbers you calculate for 2012). Given Bean’s newcomer status to the processing of Maine’s most loved and valued shellfish, she signifies, at least, for me, the lobster industry’s malleability to certain kinds of change whether it is popular or not.
But, like me, Bean is not a lobsterman. Yet, everyday, she becomes more and more entrenched in their fishing traditions, determining market prices and food access. When working on this piece, I saw prices at her wharf drop from 2.10/lb. for soft-shell Maine lobster to 1.75/lb. in one week. As Justin explained, 35-cents is a pretty big deal, especially on the macro economic level: “when you’re dealing with 7,000 pounds at $1.75, 35-cents makes a difference.”
Indeed it does. $2,450 to be exact.
Pictured: $2.10 /lb. soft shell lobster prices at the Port Clyde Lobster wharf in Maine. Prices represent early July numbers set by the DMR.
It is at this intersection of economics, capitalism, and fishing traditions that we must consider the lobsterman. Or, as I’ve had to explain to my friends, “yes, those guys that wrangle lobsters off the ocean floor,” usually while we stare into gimmicky tanks of live, “fresh” Maine lobster at a strip-mall’s “Red Lobster.“
Pictured: sternman Chris sorts soft-shell lobsters from water tanks.
Perhaps, instead of “Considering the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace might have done better to “consider the lobsterman,” a sea creature who could have given him access to the most secret aspects of the lobster himself, and how he was fished from the ocean. Trevor Corson puts it aptly in The Secret Life of Lobsters when he writes, “two types of sea creatures” exist in Maine: “lobsters and lobstermen” (134).
But of course Corson understood this—he was a lobsterman.
In 1988, Acheson anticipated that future generations would only see 2,200 lobstermen in the state of Maine. 25 years later, that number is well over twice what he anticipated: last year, Maine issued 5,963 lobster licenses for its 12-month fishing season, 4,288 of which were active commercial fishermen. A strong indicator, I believe, that certain traditions and communities only grow larger and stronger with time. A strong indicator that, more than ever, we must consider the lobsterman.
Back on the Boat
In future articles, I plan to explain how lobstering actually works—the baiting of traps, measuring of carapaces, and banding of claws. Fun facts abound from the ambidextrous nature of the lobster that chooses whether to be right-handed or left, and its bizarre mating habits (no, lobsters do not mate for life as popular culture would have us believe). But my mind keeps slipping back to scenes on the Ruthless.
But this creature, these men, and this place, they all carry great significance for me. Certainly, it reminds me of formative childhood experiences, curiously searching underneath each piece of kelp for some new ocean treasure, or the nights we spent sitting down to a messy lobster dinner with the men who fished the creature off the ocean floor. And, for anyone who has ever sat down to freshly cooked lobster, there is something valuable for you as well: it is an opportunity. Just as discussions of “organic” food, “farm to table,” and “Slow Foods Movements” help you to understand where your foods come from, understanding lobsters and their lobstermen offers the rare chance to step back in time and appreciate long-lost food traditions about where our food originated both then and now.
So much can be accomplished by considering lobster fishermen, who, like farmers, continue to feed and sustain us.
After all, lobsters and lobstermen are pretty much one of the dominant forces behind my childhood. Sure, we ate lobsters. They gave us necessary nutrition, but the men who fished them gave us more than just dinner, but a way of life. Which is why, 2,000-miles from Louisiana, I could stand on a boat, and listen to a man like Justin say, “this is God’s country,” and think so too.
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 See below image. Purple, gold, and green traps share a remarkable resemblance with Louisiana’s own Mardi Gras colors. Of course, this could be a coincidence, but given the historical and cultural ties between Maine and Louisiana, I think it’s worth footnoting as just one of many similarities found between the two states’ foodways traditions.
 In The Illustrated Dictionary of Lobstering (Cumberland Press, 1982), Kendall Merriam defines a trap’s head as, “a funnel-shaped net that is attached to the openings in the trap and also found between the parlor and the kitchen. The head allows the lobster to enter the trap. Heads are usually knitted by the lobsterman himself. Formerly made of tarred marline twine, now made of synthetic twine. Heads are also sometimes made of laths” (pgs. 45-6). Today, the tradition of at-home net-knitting has since given way to manufactured nets.
 “Fathomer” is another term for a “depth finder“: “an electronic device which works on the principle of sonar sound waves to the bottom and receiving an echo” (Merriam, pg. 29). Twentieth-century fathometers used a needle or a flashing light to indicate depth. Today’s fathometers are electronic, charting the ocean floor’s depth, or “fathom” readings, as well as other valuable information about the floor’s makeup. Claw Plugs are a now retired pre-banding technique by which lobstermen inserted a wooden or plastic plug between the thumb of the lobster and his claw. This technique has been discarded due to a disease called, “plug rot,” and other humane concerns. Both plastic bands and claw plugs serve the same purpose: to prevent lobsters from fighting in tanks. See Merriam, pgs. 65-6 for more information.
 Carpace is the forward shell of the lobster’s body, containing its heart, stomach, and brain. Lobster fishermen use this part of the shell to measure the crustacean’s market size. 3 3/16 inches (commonly called 3 1/4 inches) are the minimum size requirements. Maximum size requirements are 5 inches. For more information about carapace size and lobster gauging, see the Maine government’s website here.
 Title 12, Section 6436, Rule 25.15: all lobstermen in the state of Maine must participate in the “mandatory” v-notch program. The program demands that all egg-bearing females be notched with a “v” in their tails before “liberation” (being thrown back or returned to the ocean). For an image of a previously captured v-notched female bearing *a lot* of eggs, see here. For more information on this law, see the Maine government’s website here.
Written by: Helana Brigman