- Captain Rick Trundy and sternman Lance Friend stack lobster traps and buoys aboard the Crossfire. Since the collapse of groundfish populations in the 1990s, lobster has taken a 90 percent share of eastern Maine’s fishing economy. Regulations since that downturn may be responsible for a boom in the lobster stock, but scientists are divided on whether that boom is sustainable.
Rick Trundy does not like staying ashore, even when the wind is blowing twenty knots. It’s 4:30 in the morning in mid-April, early in the lobster season, and while most of the lobstermen in Stonington, Maine, are someplace warm, drinking coffee, he’s steaming his forty-foot boat, the Crossfire, southward down the east side of Isle Au Haut, already pitching over five-foot swells that grow in size the closer he gets to open water. The sky is lightening on the port side, and Isle au Haut Mountain looms, blue and dark, on the starboard. In the dim wheelhouse, Rick hears the voice of his uncle, Dick Bridges, distorted by the VHF radio speaker, querying from the wharf. “How are you liking it down there?”
Rick reaches for the mouthpiece, one hand on the wheel. “Well, we ain’t made Burnt Island Ledge yet, and it’s awful, awful bumpy. Not good. I don’t believe it’s any good below the Ear.”
“I got you.”
Dick, now sixty-six, has been under the weather all week, and while he may have gone to haul on a rough day five years ago, he’ll leave that for younger men today. Only one other boat left Stonington Harbor this morning, Daddy’s Girl, captained by Rick’s second cousin Jason Zanke. Rick would have preferred to steam out at 3:30, but he had to wait until the co-op opened at four in order to take on two crates of bait, in this case ocean perch or “redfish.” Rick Trundy is forty-three, stocky and strong with a round face. He slightly resembles the actor James Gandolfini with lighter hair, and in fact, some in Stonington whisper that Rick is the de-facto leader of a group of fishermen they jokingly call “The Head Harbor Mafia”-a term they won’t use openly. Rick, his uncle Dick, second cousin Jason, and four other fishermen lay sole claim to fishing the bottom off the south shore of Isle Au Haut, and occasionally they are compelled to defend the territory against other fishermen who wish to set their own traps on what is believed to be lucrative lobster bottom.
Last evening, Rick offered to bring me along while he set lobster traps but warned me conditions would be uncomfortable. I agreed, hoping for the best and considering seasickness a fair price for a trip out past Isle au Haut. Soon, the Eastern Ear looms into sight ahead, a tiny island with a tuft of spruce trees above the steep rocks. Rick pilots the Crossfire to the east of the Ear, swinging wide to avoid shoals, showing white and frothy in the waves, and begins turning westward, bringing the boat perpendicular to the largest waves so that it begins to roll from side to side. Rick’s sternman Lance Friend-thirty years old, tall, and red haired-clambers into his orange oilskin overalls and begins organizing his workstation, spearing two redfish onto a baiting iron, which he’ll soon use to bait lobster traps. As we pass by the Ear, Rick points to a small natural cove for which his family’s fishing territory is named. “That’s Head Harbor right there; the notorious Head Harbor.” I grimace and nod. The motion of the boat has become jarringly chaotic. With fifteen knots of wind from the southeast, a six-foot swell from the south, and a tidal current pushing from the southwest, the seas are confused, and white-capped waves steepen and batter the boat in every direction.
- Rick Trundy has a reputation for going out earlier than other lobstermen and in worse weather. He is jolly on the trip out, but the mood turns serious when it’s time to set traps.
Rick’s manner, jovial and joking on the trip out, changes almost instantly as he begins concentrating on the work of setting traps. He has to pay attention to the surface conditions-wind, tidal current, small choppy waves, big rolling swells-but he’s imagining the bottom of the ocean. “I take a bird’s-eye view,” he says. The floor of the Gulf of Maine is a complex landscape. There are stone ledges, canyons, caverns, hills, precipices. There are deep troughs of mud and forests of kelp. There’s hard bottom, sandy bottom, soft bottom-bedrock with thin layers of mud, silt, or sand. Rick has spent over thirty years learning this patch of ocean floor, since his grandfather, Melvin Bridges, began taking him fishing as a boy. Melvin learned the bottom through trial and error and could locate a choice area to set lobster traps within a few feet by lining his boat up to reference points on the horizon. Rick has more technology at his disposal, but the game is the same: guess where the lobsters are going to be and put your traps there; avoid tangles with other fishermen’s gear; avoid ledges where your gear will get smashed in a storm.
- Greenhead Lobster, a wholesale distributor, has a water-front view of Stonington. With roughly 400 lobster boats and a population of only 1,200, Stonington is the largest lobster port in the state of Maine.
As Rick carefully maneuvers the Crossfire near an underwater feature he calls the Rock Pile, Lance wrestles two yellow mesh traps from the neat stack in the stern, baits each with a redfish, and slides them on the rail just behind Rick’s position in the wheelhouse. Rick spins in a flurry, ties a thirty-fathom warp1 of rope to one trap, ties on a white buoy, and spins to maneuver the boat, his eyes scanning the rough waters for other buoys or breaking waves. He spins back around, ties a buoy to another warp and the warp to the trap, and is manning the wheel again in seconds, glancing at his depth sounder. He eases the throttle from idle speed to guide the boat westward, saying, “Now, Lance.” Lance pushes the first trap over.
Most lobstermen like to set and haul on the same day, so they can have something to sell to cover their expenses, but Rick has chosen to pay for diesel, bait, and Lance’s time out of pocket. He figures he can get ahead a little by putting eighty of his eight hundred traps in the water sooner so that in a few weeks, when other lobster fishermen are still setting traps, he can haul in and make some money before prices drop. But shortly into the set, Lance is wearing a worried look and shouts a warning up toward the wheelhouse. Rick yells back: “I see it, I see it, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now.” The confused motion of the waves has loosened the lines holding the stack of traps at the stern, and several have shaken loose, dangling over the water. Losing a stack of traps would cost Rick hundreds of dollars, cancelling anything gained by daring to set on a rough day. I hear Rick muttering to himself, “Oh, Jesus Christ … Jesus Christ,” but he sounds more aggravated than worried, like a driver late for work. He hunches and cranes furiously, trying to keep the bow into the weather to reduce the boat’s motion. He and Lance seem to double their already rapid pace, prepping traps, laying them on the rail, never standing still for more than a second or two, and barely speaking. I catch a view of a breaker on a ledge that seems very close to the boat and shout, “There’s a big wave breaking over there.”
Rick says, “Yep, and it’s broken on top of more than one boat.”
“What happens when it breaks on your boat?”
Rick laughs grimly. “You sink,” he says, and spins around to tie off another warp.
In the summer of 2006, Whole Foods Market, the high-end, supermarket chain, announced it would no longer carry live lobster in any of its stores. Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods’s Vice President for Quality Standards, stated in a press release: “We are not yet sufficiently satisfied that the process of selling live lobsters is in line with our commitment to humane treatment and quality of life for animals.” Live lobsters can spend days, weeks, and, in extreme cases, months, in cramped water tanks before they are finally sold, and Whole Foods noted that this could cause undue stress for such “typically solitary creatures.”
At that time, People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA) was in the throes of a “Lobster Liberation Campaign,” and activists occasionally showed up at lobster industry events to protest against the boiling and steaming of lives lobsters. PETA cited recent studies showing that, contrary to conventional wisdom, lobsters may in fact feel pain when they are boiled or steamed. “While the experts couldn’t seem to agree on which method would cause the least suffering,” their brochure read, “they do agree that there really is no humane way to kill these sensitive and unusual animals.”
Whole Foods proudly announced a partnership with “an innovative seafood company, Clearwater Seafoods of Nova Scotia, Canada, to experiment with different handling techniques that support natural conditions to help lobsters thrive.” Clearwater is a giant-they own all of the offshore lobster fishing permits in Maritime Canada-and vertically integrated company that markets, processes, and ships lobster throughout the world. Clearwater would provide Whole Foods with raw, vacuum-sealed meat from lobsters “humanely killed” in a Hydrostatic Pressure Processing (HPP) System called the Avure 687L.
At the time of the announcement, I was living in Portland, Maine, where Whole Foods was already building its first and only Maine store. Whole Foods’s decision seemed odd, given that the Maine lobster industry had already developed a reputation as one of the best managed fisheries in the world. At a time when fish stocks across the globe were depleting at an alarming rate and natural ecologies were reeling from overfishing, many in the industry, and several observers, believed that Maine was getting it right. By giving the responsibility to self-manage the industry to multi-generational fishing families, Maine was ensuring that lobster fishing was performed by small, personal operations with the incentive, in a region with few other economies, to carefully manage the fishery.
The technology to be used by Clear-water was anything but small and personal. The Avure 687L HPP system weighs over a hundred thousand pounds and, with its gleaming sterile white components, looks like an oversized MRI machine. The lobsters go into the main tank, an engineer throws a switch, and water pumps pressurize the tank to 45,000 PSI-more than three times the pressure of the deepest ocean trenches. Lobsters in the tank are killed and sterilized, and the bonds that hold the shells to the muscle tissue are destroyed. A technician pulls the lobster from the tank and can readily separate slippery lobster flesh from lobster shell. Avure Technologies, the firm that developed and sells HPP machines, claims the system reduces labor costs, increases the meat yields, and decreases contamination. They make no claims of a humane kill.2
Two years before Whole Foods switched from selling live lobster, the late David Foster Wallace published an essay titled “Consider the Lobster”-largely set at the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland-in which he questioned the ethics of boiling live lobsters. The essay, along with PETA’s campaign, helped create the social conditions in which Whole Foods could expect acclaim for their decision. It’s a thoughtful piece of writing that examines the sticky ethics of eating meat for people who care, or want to care, about animal wellbeing, but by focusing on lobsters’ deaths, it neglects to examine the ecology of their lives. It fails to consider the lobstermen, for whom fishing represents the last means of support for their thousands of coastal families, but it also fails to realize that, paradoxically, it is lobstermen on whom the future of lobsters may rely.
On the Crossfire, south of Head Harbor, Rick Trundy and Lance Friend continue to frantically set traps, hoping they can work their way to the loose traps before they tumble off the boat. Rick slowly guides the boat westward past Black Point Shoal, Cape Anne Ledge, and to the Schoolhouse Shoal, which the old-timers lined up with the old Head Harbor Schoolhouse.3 By the time the Crossfire reaches a shoal they call the Bull Breaker, the motion from the seas has eased up, no traps have fallen in the water, and Lance has managed to secure the loose traps. Rick is visibly cheerful now and looks over at me and says to Lance, not unkindly, “I don’t know how, but he’s still smiling.” I tell him the wave breaking on the Bull is a perfect surfing curl, and Rick says, “My grandfather came out here in a hurricane one time and watched a wave break from there, all the way to the shore.”
Rick and Lance set the rest of the traps without incident. After the last trap drops off the rail, jerking the white buoy down the stern, up and over and into the water behind it, Rick spins the boat around and opens up the throttle. The tide has come up enough to navigate “The Gut” between the Eastern Ear and Isle au Haut, a narrow channel filled with frothy breakwater and visible shoals. “There’s plenty of water in here, you just have to stay in it,” he shouts, and the Crossfire shoots through the Gut with the engine whining, emerging into much gentler seas. The rough white caps are replaced by calmer blue ripples. It’s only 9:30 in the morning, and the hardest part of the day is done. I stand on the now empty stern deck with Lance, and we seem to be flying over the bay, past the small islands that cluster near Stonington. He grins and shouts, “It’s a whole other world down below the Ear.”
The town of Stonington lies at the southern end of Deer Isle, accessible from the mainland by a narrow green bridge that towers over Eggemogin Reach. The town is picturesque, with European-style houses built in the 1900s when the town’s granite quarries were booming, building New York’s skyscrapers and the Smithsonian buildings on the Capitol Mall. Lobster fishermen claim the abundance of hard granite bottom grows a better tasting and more resilient lobster than anywhere else in Maine. Indeed, Stonington boats have had Maine’s highest lobster catch, at a time when Maine’s total catch has set records for three years running.
- Jennifer Eaton Larrabee, at home with her son, Jacob, calls corporate fishing operations like Clearwater Seafoods “the biggest threat to my sons.”
These are boom times in Stonington. The wharf harbors nearly four hundred lobster boats. Teenage boys and girls work as sternmen in the summers and pay cash for late-model full-size pickups.4 Older fishermen with more responsibilities pay off debts, pay their property tax, renovate homes, invest in new traps and ropes, and, like the younger sternmen, upgrade their pickups. Unlike much of Midcoast and Downeast Maine, Stonington is a fishing town first, a tourist and retiree town second-at least for the time being.
Jennifer Eaton Larrabee, who introduced me to Rick Trundy, grew up here in Stonington, the son of Jim Eaton, who started Sunshine Seafood, a shoreside operation that bought lobster from fishermen and sold it to wholesalers and retailers. By the time she was in her teens, her father was developing air freight markets, and Jennifer made cold calls to restaurants in Europe and Asia, arranging to send chefs boxes of lobsters or whole fresh halibut.
While Jennifer was away at college, her father sold the company to a larger wholesaler, which was soon acquired by the Barry Group, one of the largest seafood wholesalers and processors in North America. The company offered her a hefty raise if she would leave school, and so, in her early twenties, she found herself running a shoreside operation in Stonington that, just a few years ago, had been her family’s mom-and-pop business. She says her management style, which involved jumping into boots and oilskins to help pack seafood when an order came in, clashed with the corporate culture of the other managers: “There was this subtle class system-I was management and I shouldn’t be rubbing elbows with people down on the floor.” The experience has left her with a sour attitude toward businesses she calls “corporate seafood,” which, she says, are all about consolidation. “The sustainable practices that we use in this community are not necessarily viewed as profitable, because it’s not the fastest way to get product.”
- Rick Trundy and son, Nick, load traps onto their trailer. Multi-generational, family-run lobster fishing operations have come to define Stonington and many other coastal communities in Maine.
While working for the Barry Group, she became reacquainted with a young, hardworking Western Bay5 fisherman named Ryan Larrabee. They were married soon after, and, when Jenni-fer became pregnant, she decided it was time to leave the Barry Group, even though she was up for a promotion. “I was climbing the corporate ladder really fast, but I didn’t want to be involved in consolidation.” Now, at thirty-two, she jokes that she’s “retired,” spending her time with their two boys and volunteering on the board at Penobscot East Resource Center (PERC), an organization committed to-among other principles-owner-operator scaled fishing. “This community has a generational view. The fishermen all want to ensure that their sons and grandsons can go fishing. They are some of the biggest environmentalists I know, and they don’t even know they’re environmentalists.”
She sees that ethic in stark contrast to corporate operations. “My company supplied Clearwater, and they are the most unethical …” She trails off. “They’re about consolidation. And you know what it does? It kills small businesses. It kills … I’m going to say something shocking: it kills families. In fact, I would consider Clearwater to be the biggest threat to my sons, because they’re such a large company, and because people really don’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes.”
“The females are …” Rick Trundy laughs apologetically. “They’re bitches. An egg lobster-it’s like anything else in nature-she’s protecting her young, her eggs. If she gets into a trap, she’ll most of the time kill whatever else is in the trap.” Rick is showing me the “parlor” of a partially built lobster trap, the large compartment where lobsters are detained after feasting in the “kitchen.” His shop is a concrete slab two-car garage with a place for everything, everything in its place. He leans on the trap-in-progress, resting on a waste-high stand, where he can assemble it with a staple gun. Over his shoulder, a taxidermied buck’s head hangs on the wall, with several empty Crown Royal Whisky bags dangling from the antlers. The head is framed by two lobster claws the size of porterhouse steaks, which he says his uncle dragged up in Portland in 1967.6 The buck’s antlers also cradle an aluminum stock twelve-gauge shotgun-“for environmentalists,” he jokes; “they’re always in season”-and below that are dozens of snapshots of Rick and friends hunting, fishing, or drinking with the occasional girls-in-bikinis postcard sprinkled in. At the very center of the photo collage is one very large photo of Melvin Bridges-Rick’s grandfather, Dick Bridges’s father-in orange coveralls and a white cap, steering his lobster boat.
- Steve Robbins has been Dick Bridges’s best friend from childhood. Dick, Rick Trundy, and other fishermen gather to drink coffee and tell stories every Sunday morning in Robbins’s shop, where he measures warps and paints buoys.
Melvin was the patriarch of the family. He helped Rick get started in the 1980s, first taking him out in the stern and later selling him his first boat, a thirty-two foot Bruno and Stillman hull. Melvin had similarly started Rick’s uncle Dick twenty years earlier, and it was Melvin and his brother Lawson who carved out the Head Harbor territory for the family in the postwar years. Melvin passed his fishing knowledge and territory to the two men who have used it as a foundation, not just for their livelihood, but for everything that gives them status and recognition in their community. Every lobsterman has his own buoy color scheme to identify his gear, and Melvin fished all white buoys, a seemingly odd choice. “Yeah, they’re a blast to see in the fog bank,” Rick jokes. “A lot of gulls around, all white caps-yeah, you can’t miss them.” But he sticks with the white buoys, in honor of his grandfather. Rick’s son, Nick, now a junior in high school, plans to go fishing as well, although he is also considering attending Maine Maritime Academy “as a backup.”
Rick says since having children, he’s curtailed the good-timing and drinking, and says he’s better off when he keeps busy. “Fishermen shouldn’t sit at home.” Rick likes to leave the dock at 3:30-a good hour before many fishermen-both to avoid long bullshit sessions, and because he often wakes up at two anyway. As we’re talking in the shop, Rick takes a call from a Downeast shrimp dealer. Shrimp stocks are up in Maine, and Rick has recently joined his uncle Dick in the fishery, and I realize he’s organizing a meeting. “I’ve been talking to the girls down at PERC,” he says into the phone, “and we’ve got the new commissioner coming the first of the month. And, we kind of wanted to try to get a few of us together to come up with a few questions maybe.” The conversation continues for a few minutes, and when he gets off, he shakes his head.
“You sound like an organizer,” I say.
“Well, if you knew me five years ago … I go to haul. I get home. I do this,” he says gesturing to the trap he’s working on. “I go to haul.” But two years ago, Rick, at the urging of Jennifer Larrabee among others, went through a program organized by PERC called Community Fisheries Action Roundtable (C-FAR). The program allows fishermen from various communities in Maine to meet each other in friendly environments to learn about how the regulatory process actually works. He met lobbyists, politicians, and scientists, and now has taken a leadership role among shrimp fishermen.
I ask Rick whether the regulators listen to fishermen more than they used to, and he’s unwilling to go that far. “I think more fishermen
are involved, they go to more meetings,” but with the rising costs of fuel and bait and a stagnant price for lobster Rick feels tremendous pressure to keep his catch volume high. And he is sincerely worried that the government will impose a lower trap limit or other measures to reduce effort, which he thinks could put him out of business. That’s partly why he is encouraging his son to look at college. “Five years ago, we’d be looking at buying a boat for him, but with the way things are going, we may all be part-timers.”
Early last September, on a warm and sunny afternoon, lobster fisherman Brent Oliver was about to tee off on the fifth hole at the Stonington Golf Course, when a new acquaintance, Dan Headley, came running up from the Club House. He told Brent, “The Stonington Sea Products building is going up for sale. You’ve got to buy it!” From the club house, you might mistake Brent for the golfer John Daly-tall, thick, strong, with a flop of blond hair. He’s been playing golf on free afternoons for about twelve years and, like Daly, his golf career has been hampered by certain habits. “My problem is, I can’t drink and play golf separately, because I don’t have time.”
Brent is known in Stonington for fishing about as hard as anybody can. He has a forty-six-foot boat, the Jarsulan 4, with a one thousand horsepower engine that allows him to fish year round, in rough offshore waters in the winter, six days a week with two sternmen. “I chase them out offshore in the winter and turn around and head back in the summer.” Brent’s costs are probably as high or higher than anybody in Stonington, but his catch is also among the largest, if not number one. In the 1990s, he dragged for scallops and gillnetted for groundfish, but as the catches declined and the regulations became more restrictive, he began transitioning into lobster fishing and soon fished for lobsters year round.
- Captain Brent Oliver, aboard the Jarsulan 4, attempted to compete against corporate fishing operations by getting into wholesaling and by aggressively marketing his lobster as “sustainable.”
Brent has always experimented with ways to maximize his profit, and after doing everything he could think of to increase volume, he started to look at price. Lobster fishermen generally agree to sell to one shoreside buyer at the beginning of a fishing season. The buyer sets the boat price, which isseldom subject to negotiation-but often subject to bitching. Some buyers offer a dividend or “bonus,” paid yearly, as an incentive for loyalty.7 The buyers usually provide bait and other dockside services to the fishermen-cranes to facilitate loading traps, diesel-and consistent quality bait is key to ensuring loyalty. After watching Stonington’s six or seven shoreside buyers for years, Brent observed that most simply flip their inventory to one or two wholesalers, who truck them away to tank rooms where they “grade” them based on size and quality and resell to retailers, restaurants, and processors. In some cases the wholesalers pack live lobsters with ice and ship them to Europe or Asia in cargo compartments of 747s from JFK or Boston Logan.
Brent began to wonder if he could get the same price for his lobster that the wholesalers paid to the shoreside operations. “When you look at your poundage for a year, and you think about 50 cents or 75 cents more a pound, you do the math and realize that could be as much as a lot of people make in a year.” Brent won’t say how many pounds he catches annually, but several fishermen estimated somebody who fishes as hard as Brent could catch two thousand pounds on a good day, making a conservative estimate of his yearly catch a hundred thousand pounds. If Brent could find a way to get 50 cents a pound more while keeping his costs fixed, he would be looking at tens of thousands of dollars in additional income, of which his sternmen would also get a share.
Brent decided to invest in a tank room where he could store his daily catch until he could attract a wholesaler willing to pay a good price. When Dan Headley ran up to him on the golf course, telling him to buy the Stonington Sea Products building, Brent hesitated since it was way more building than he needed. It already had lobster storage tanks but also came with a seafood retail storefront, walk-in freezers, a delivery truck, office space, and a room for hand-processing shellfish. But the seller was desperate, and Brent and his wife Susan-who co-owns a marine and auto parts business-were able to get a great price by coming up with cash within a week of the offer.
Brent’s plan had been simple. Get a tank room, put his catch in it, and hold out for the highest bidder. But once he had the tank room and, as a bonus, the delivery truck, he couldn’t resist hiring a driver and dabbling in the wholesale business. Mortality in the live lobster business can be as high as 30 percent, but Brent believed he could guarantee zero mortality to his buyers. He would pick out only the highest-grade lobsters with hard shells that could survive a day of transport to sell to retailers and restaurants, and sell the less resilient soft-shelled lobsters8 to the Canadian processor, Pier 99, that sends a truck to Stonington several times a week. He turned out to be a pretty good salesman. “I picked up a couple, three markets,” he says, casually. In just a few months, he was able to get anywhere from $1 to $1.75 more than the boat price. “It was just a better lobster than they were used to, and I never lost a lobster.”
Brent had hit upon two principles that made Clearwater Seafoods a leader in the seafood business. He experimented with vertical integration by getting into the wholesale business to eliminate the middleman. Brent also realized that with strong marketing, you can get good money for a better lobster, and with smart grading, you can get some money for an okay lobster-if you can keep them alive. Clearwater’s innovation-using Avure Technologies HPP system to kill and de-shell lobsters-was a powerful industrial solution to the simple biological fact that drives the lobster business: lobsters begin to die the moment they are pulled out of the ocean. They’ll live for about a day on a boat or for a few days in floating crates in the harbor. Lobster tanks keep them alive for weeks, and lobster pounds-walled off coves some shoreside buyers maintain-keep them for months. Clearwater’s Dryland storage facility, the biggest and most innovative lobster pound in the world, allows them to hold onto valuable lobsters for months until the orders come in. But even Clearwater’s lobsters are dying.
To slow the death, Clearwater developed individualized holding facilities, known as “condos.” These were touted by Whole Foods as an innovative approach to handling the lobsters humanely, but they also allow Clearwater to track individual lobsters and monitor their health. When their blood protein reaches a certain point-measured by a technician with a sampling syringe-they’re taken from their condo and sent to the HPP system to be killed, de-shelled, vacuum-packed, and labeled as “Nova Scotia Prime Lobster.” Neither Avure Technologies nor Clearwater Seafoods promote HPP Processing as “humane” in their marketing literature, but Whole Foods’s co-founder and CEO said, in a press release, “We place as much emphasis on the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals as we do on the expectations for quality and flavor. It is an integral component of our standards for every species we sell, and lobster cannot be any different.”
Whole Foods Market charges nearly fifty dollars a pound at the store for its processed lobster, whereas retail price for live lobster varies between eight and eighteen dollars a pound. By making the switch to processed lobster, Whole Foods now gets three to five times the price while eliminating the cost of tanks, floor space, live delivery, and mortality. That Whole Foods’s decision to discontinue live lobster was humane for the lobsters is debatable, but it made good business sense.
Clearwater Seafoods says their lobster is “sustainably harvested,” and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an independent agency, certifies it as such. However, the MSC has recently been accused of being overly generous in their certifications. Clearwater’s website says they voluntarily throw back oversized lobsters-part of Maine’s management plan-but this is difficult to verify because Clearwater Seafoods is something of a black box. Writer John McPhee visited their Dryland Pound several years ago and wrote that Clearwater caught lobsters weighing up to fifteen pounds and that, occasionally, “a lobster with claws the size of bed pillows goes to Japan.” These lobster would be significantly oversized in Maine. Clearwater would not comment.
Brent Oliver, on the other hand, is happy to answer just about any question. He sits at his kitchen with a Jack Daniel’s and water and finishes the story of his venture into the wholesale business. Like Clearwater, Brent learned that the principle of “sustainability” is increasingly important in the seafood market. A handful of other Maine and Canadian based wholesalers have certified their lobster as “sustainable,” even though the lobsters are basically caught the same way throughout the American and Canadian fisheries. Brent recently joined a committee to explore the possibility of getting all Stonington lobster certified sustainable, but that effort has stalled for now. Brent was able to get higher prices for his lobster, but he says, “It’s too nerve-wracking to do and go fishing. My wife said if I keep doing it, I have to move out.”
“It sounds like you were good at it, though,” I tell Brent.
“Yeah,” he nods. “And it could be fun, but then you start realizing you’ve gone all week and you haven’t been able to play golf in the afternoons and then you start laying in bed at night and you get to thinking about the business, and the next thing you know, you haven’t slept, so … I had my taste.”
Dick Bridges has a weathered face, with a white fisherman’s beard and no mustache. He smokes Swisher cigarillos which he lights with the enormous hands of a man who has moved heavy gear around in rough conditions for over fifty years. It’s startling to realize he’s a baby boomer-he was twenty-two during the Summer of Love-since he seems to be of another era. He’s an avuncular figure, the elder statesman of the Head Harbor fishermen, but when I meet him on the dock to go fishing, he seems grumpy and taciturn. By five in the morning, as we steam out to the Head Harbor territory, his mood improves. “I’ve been a fisherman all my life,” he tells me proudly. “Every day is different, every day is a challenge, and even today, when I go out fishing and that sun comes up, cold chills still go up my back.”
After we round the Eastern Ear, Dick’s sternman, Tom Hardy, a friendly man in his forties with a mustache, hooks the first buoy with a long gaff. He pulls up the warp and hands it to Dick, who wraps it around the cog in the hydraulic trap hauler. Dick throws a lever and the cog spins, pulling the trap to the surface in about thirty seconds. Tom hauls the trap overboard, sets it on the rail, and two dark brown lobsters are wriggling inside. Tom reaches into the trap, pulls one out, glances at it, and tosses it over the rail carelessly-obviously too small. He sets the other on a tray in the wheelhouse, and spears a redfish through the eye with the bait iron, then pulls a string in the trap through the fish’s eye socket, baiting the trap. He places it on the rail for Dick, who, cigarillo in his teeth, casually pushes it over into the water. As Dick maneuvers to the next trap, Tom edges into the wheelhouse behind him and uses a metal gauge to measure the second lobster’s carapace. This lobster is on the verge of being legal sized, and Tom plays with the gauge to see if he can make it fit, but finally gives up and tosses the lobster overboard. He looks at me and holds his finger and thumb together, indicating the thinnest gap. Just a tiny bit too small.
- Captain Dick Bridges aboard his skiff after hauling traps with sternman Tom Hardy (right) on the Katherine Ellen.
Maine’s management scheme protects small lobsters, giving young about seven years to grow to legal size, during which time they may spawn once or twice. Female lobsters with eggs get v-notched in one of their tail flippers, and any female lobster with a hint of scar tissue on that flipper is thrown back, under pain of penalty. I see Dick spend several seconds examining a lobster’s fin before tossing it overboard. The v-notchers, along with any lobsters with five-inch carapaces or longer, are considered breeding stock, and all of the fishermen I talk to seem to support the laws protecting them, even though Canada and other states do not have the oversize law.
After three hours, we return to the Stonington Co-op, and the dockhand weighs Dick’s catch and gives him a receipt for ninety pounds of lobster. This is considered a light catch these days, but as the price is still relatively high at $4.75 a pound, it’s enough to cover the day’s fuel, bait, and pay Tom for a light day’s work. When Dick first started lobster fishing in the 1960s, ninety pounds would have been a good day. Lobster catches have consistently improved in the Gulf of Maine-which includes waters off Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia-and government scientists’ no longer believe lobster are overfished. The new consensus is that there are more lobsters than ever in recorded history, while Maine’s other fisheries have declined. Fishermen who once diversified their incomes now trap for lobster, period. The cost of fuel, traps, rope, and bait, which used to be caught in the Gulf of Maine, have all continued to climb. Adjusted for inflation, the boat price of lobster, which varies with the seasons, has not risen overall, and is arguably dropping.
Meanwhile, property values on the Maine coast have climbed rapidly, tapering off somewhat since the housing crisis in 2007. The market has been driven by “summer people” who want second homes for vacationing and retirement. Summer people are attracted by what they consider the rustic charm of the fishing communities, but by driving up property values, they represent a threat to those communities. Localities in Maine pay for most of their education costs and government services by means of the personal property tax, and in most places, the tax is assessed according to the “highest and best use” of the property. That means, if a fisherman’s land would be worth more as a bed and breakfast or subdivided into cottages, the fisherman is taxed based on that value, regardless of how much the fisherman is actually making. This puts pressure on fishing families to move off the higher valued land, which tends to be the land near the water or near the harbor. This in turn has caused fishermen to rely more and more on co-ops or shoreside buyers to provide the dock access they need to work. Kathleen Billings, the Stonington town manager, says the town is doing what they can to preserve waterfront for fishermen and keep a high proportion of locals in the population, but she says, “We’ll slide into the quagmire eventually.”
Andrew Gove is one of the last fishermen to live on downtown Stonington’s waterfront. He started fishing after World War II, and has yet to stop. In the 1970s, he fished by airplane over Penobscot Bay, radioing the location of herring schools to another fisherman who would go after them with a trawling net. “They look like dark shadows, like big rocky ledges, except they would move and slowly change shape,” he tells me, over a cup of tea in his living room. While his wife Rose goes into the kitchen for cookies, Andrew hands me a stack of older photos, one of which shows his lobster boat up on a plane, skimming over the water at forty knots. Dozens of trophies are displayed on a nearby shelf, and when I compliment the collection, he says, “Oh, that’s just a few of them,” and lists all the harbors where he’s won lobster boat races. At eighty-one years old, he is still thought to have the fastest lobster boat in Stonington.
When I mention Gove to Brent Oliver, he shakes his head in admiration and disbelief: “He still fishes eight hundred traps, and he fishes them hard.” Andrew has bad knees and is recovering from surgery over the winter, and Brent says he’s starting to forget where he sets his traps. Still, he’s preparing to fish hard for another season. He owns his house and property outright, purchased in the 1950s for $7,000, but the value has increased so much that he has to pay more than the purchase price each year in taxes. He relies on his private dock to store traps and load boats but feels he has to fish the full eight hundred traps just to keep us his expenses and pay the property taxes. “I got to work like hell,” he says, “or I got to move.”
- After a day of fishing, Aaron Larrabee (right) takes shelter behind the bar at the Brooklin Pub during an animated discussion with friends.
Many younger lobster fishermen have already moved, leaving Stonington to live “over the Reach,” in cheaper towns like Sedgwick and Brooksville. Brooklin, a little southeast of Sedgwick on the mainland, is a haven for tourists, summer people, and sailboat enthusiasts-E. B. White lived in North Brooklin. The Brooklin Pub is a fishermen’s bar all but hidden in the basement of an elegant Bed and Breakfast. I’m there with Travis Dove, the photographer, when fisherman Aaron Larrabee-a cousin of Ryan’s-walks in with a couple of buddies and orders drinks. Aaron recognizes Travis from the docks and calls him over, shouting, “Are you working for Playboy?” and guffaws. Moments later, we’re throwing back Jaeger bombs with a small crowd of fishermen who seem eager to hear our impressions of Stonington and lobster fishing, and to share gossip. I find myself talking to Baren Yurchick, who commutes forty-five minutes to Stonington on fishing days, to fish the same bottom as Rick Trundy and Dick Bridges-the Head Harbor territory.
- Sternmen Eddie Dobrzynski and Dennis Eaton haul in a trap aboard Captain John Williams’s boat the Khristy Michelle.
Baren’s grandmother Hazel was Melvin Bridges’s sister, and his father Michael Yurchick lost his eye when his boat fetched up on the shoal now called “Michael’s Mistake.” Michael still fishes the same area, and Baren says, “I sometimes close one of my eyes when I’m hauling traps, just to imagine what it would be like.” He says he doesn’t really like it in Head Harbor; he believes Rick Trundy or one of the other older guys is hauling his traps and keeping the lobsters for himself or cutting them off to sink to the bottom-even though Baren is considered a member of the family. “I’m the young pup,” he says, suggesting the older guys in the family are making sure he knows his place. Western Bay fishermen like Aaron Larrabee have told him he’s welcome to fish there. “That’s what I honestly should do, but I won’t, because if I left, it would destroy my dad and my uncle. It would crush them.”
I ask him if he’s ever seen somebody haul his traps. “No, I’ve never seen them do it, but you can tell.” He grabs my notebook and draws a diagram of a string of traps, explaining that when he hauls a string, the first trap will be teeming with lobster, the next trap empty. The next trap is teeming, the next one empty, and so on. When I don’t look convinced by that evidence, he repeats emphatically, “You just know.” I ask if he’s sure, and he says: “One hundred percent? No. But my father used to say, 99 percent of the time, you know who did it. The other 1 percent? Oops.”
Several years ago, somebody sank Rick Trundy’s first boat, the one his grandfather sold him, while it was moored off Stonington Harbor. Rick says he later learned the fisherman who sank his boat believed Rick had molested several of his traps. “He was dead wrong; he got the wrong guy,” Rick says. When it came time to name his current boat, he chose the Crossfire as a joke about being caught up in others’ conflicts. Rick is aware that some have accused him of selfishly-and illegally-hauling other fishermen’s traps and dismisses the claim as jealousy. “They see you’re catching a certain amount of lobster and they say, ‘Ricky must be hauling your traps.’ They never say, ‘Ricky’s working his butt off at 3:30 in the morning.’”
Rick says he respects other fishermen’s territories, and he expects them to respect his. If somebody sets traps in Head Harbor, he warns them in person or ties a knot around their buoy. “Trap wars are expensive for everybody. It’s always better to say something.” If they don’t respect the warning, he won’t go into specifics but acknowledges that sometimes he retaliates. Known retaliations include cutting the warp between trap and buoy so that the trap is lost, smashing traps, or finding other creative ways to destroy or strand fishing gear. When somebody cuts Rick’s gear, he says he can narrow the culprit down to two or three possible fishermen. “From year to year, you know who your enemies are. Of course,” he chuckles, “my grandfather was kind of old school, talking about retaliation. He used to say 90 percent of the time, you know who did it. The rest of the time, he probably needed it, too.” Apparently, it’s a family slogan.
The territorial behavior of the fishermen might seem disturbing to an outsider: petty, dangerous, costly, even brutish. In 2009, a fisherman on Matinicus Island was shot over a territorial dispute, and occasionally “lobster wars” break out, in which rival fishing groups inflict many thousands of dollars in damages to gear and boats. But observers of the lobster fishery say that territorial disputes rarely get out of hand, and the territories serve as an informal conservation measure, limiting the amount anybody can take from a common resource. Bob Bayer, the head of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, disputes this, saying the territorialism has nothing to do with conservation. “They’re catching just as many lobster; they’re just keeping more for themselves.” However, anthropologist James Acheson, author of the acclaimed ethnography The Lobster Gangs of Maine, cites evidence showing well defended territories, especially those with clear boundaries like the Head Harbor territory, tend to have better lobster stock. Furthermore, he argues territories foster a sense of ownership over otherwise common resources, which leads fishermen to support conservation measures so their territory will stay productive.
- Sea sampler Kathleen Reardon aboard the Khristy Michelle in the East Penobscot Bay. Research shows that measures to protect oversized lobsters and egg-bearing females have produced a dramatic increase in the population-but they also threaten to turn the Gulf of Maine into a monoculture.
Acheson’s view is at least partly shared by Robin Alden, the executive director of Penobscot East Resource Center. She helped create the Zone Management System, which she calls “a more formal version of the traditional lobster fishing territories.” Robin came to Stonington when she was twenty and took a job with the local newspaper and concurrently founded the Commercial Fisheries News, which she ran for years and survives to this day. In the 1990s, she was appointed the Commissioner of Marine Resources, and during her term, she worked on the Zone Management System, owner-operator legislation, and statewide trap limit, all of which have contributed to observers calling Maine lobster one of the best managed fisheries in the world.9 She says her approach as commissioner was less about pushing any specific management measure and more about devising co-management systems that gave responsibility to the fishermen. “When you have a complex system, the solution is not to take a remote, higher level regulatory approach. If you have competent decisions being made at the local level, you have much better policy.” Robin’s window overlooks one of two wharves owned by the Stonington Co-op, the same wharf where Rick Trundy and Dick Bridges buy their bait and sell their lobsters. “In Stonington, we don’t have Washington DC decide when to plow the roads when it snows. And this is exactly comparable to that.”
I want to ask Robin a question that has been troubling me since I got to Stonington. Many people I’ve spoken to have expressed some version of the idea that fishermen are conservationists by nature. But many fishermen I’ve met don’t always seem like conservationists. Rick Trundy, Brent Oliver, and Ryan Larrabee are extremely smart, hard-working businessmen, who have an impressive understanding of what happens on the ocean’s floor. But all seem to put most of their energy into catching as much as they possibly can, whether it’s lobster or other species. All seem opposed to specific conservation measures that limit their ability to fish. They are against the costly breakaway “whale rope” that is supposed to keep whales from getting tangled in fishing gear, and several trucks at the fish piers bear a sticker reading: “f” the whales. save the endangered lobster fisherman. 10 They insist that the biggest threat to their livelihood is governmental regulations, not the potential collapse of the ecosystem.
When I put the question to Robin Alden, she closes her eyes for a moment before answering. “I think the question you’re asking is at the root of this organization’s existence. Fishermen often talk in the coffee shop saying, ‘What they ought to do is this,’ or, ‘They shouldn’t allow dragging.’ But when it comes to constraining their own operation, it is really, really hard for them to be conservative.” She smiles, “I’m married to a fisherman, and when you’re a fisherman, you’re an optimist. You wouldn’t leave the harbor-you wouldn’t get up in the morning-if you didn’t think you could fill your boat. So I think a lot about: can you set up a structure where the responsibility for the long term really rests with the industry, in a way that fosters that sort of self-checking that is needed? I’m convinced it’s the only way fishing is going to continue. I’m convinced they have the knowledge of the ecosystem. They don’t know everything. They can’t see global scale changes, they can’t see microscopic changes, but they know so much more than anyone else.”
Marine ecologist Bob Steneck, a professor at the University of Maine, is part of a generation of scholars inclined to give the lobster fishermen credit for their insight into the ecosystem. In 2006, he published a definitive paper showing evidence that lobster were not being overfished, something the fishermen had been saying for years. And he thinks the stock is still on the rise. “If you look at catch per unit of effort-lobsters per trap haul-it’s actually increasing, so lobster density is still outpacing our ability to reduce them.”
But Steneck lays out an alarming explanation for the continued lobster boom. In simple terms, he thinks we’ve turned the Gulf of Maine into a well managed monoculture. “In aquaculture, the first thing you do is domesticate the environment and remove the predators.” Predatory groundfish in the Gulf of Maine collapsed in the mid-1990s, but scientists have dismissed this as an explanation for the lobster boom, which started several years before. Steneck cites genetic and archaeological evidence suggesting that groundfish populations are much more local than previously believed. He believes fishermen eliminated the populations closest to the shore where the lobsters live before the 1990s and kept the catch up for a few more years chasing healthy populations offshore.
He has shown up to 80 percent of their diet is lobster bait. “We’re feeding them,” he says, and-based on data taken from SCUBA diving and trawling samples-he thinks the fishermen’s plan to protect oversized lobsters and egg-bearing females has produced five times as many breeding lobsters now as in the 1980s. Rick Trundy and Brent Oliver might bristle to hear their fishery called an “aquaculture.” For them, it is a wild struggle between man and nature in challenging and occasionally dangerous conditions. However, Steneck’s argument is convincing. “Undoubtedly,” he says, “there are parallels to aquaculture. There are also the same perils as aquaculture.”
The denser the lobster population, the more vulnerable they become to an epizootic event: a mass die-off. Since there’s hardly anything else to catch, Steneck thinks this would be catastrophic. “Families would lose their primary income. Boats, gear, and co-ops would be sold for pennies on the dollar.” More working waterfront could be lost to summer people or to the big seafood companies Jennifer Larrabee worries about. Steneck concludes, “The younger guys don’t have any recollection of a time when the system was anything but this monoculture, and if we no longer remember a diverse ecosystem, we have no hope to reclaim it.”
Whole Foods, for its part, appears to no longer carry Clearwater Seafoods’s brand of raw lobster. They do carry frozen lobster meat from another company but will not discuss the switch. Within Maine, the company has made an exception to their no live lobsters policy. The store in Portland, the only Whole Foods Market in the world with a lobster tank, is stocked with live Stonington lobster.
On my last afternoon in Stonington, I ask Dick Bridges, if a lifetime spent tracking combative and territorial lobsters has helped him understand the weathered Mainers who fish for them. Dick pauses in his work and stares at me.
“No,” he says finally. “They’re too unpredictable. I can tell what a person’s going to do within six weeks of knowing them. I never know what the lobsters are going to do, year to year. That’s why they’re still down there.”
- Rick Trundy calls his warps “thirty fathom,” which equals one hundred eighty feet, although he may choose to make them longer or shorter depending on the depth where he sets traps. The trap is tied to a nylon “float rope” designed to float up and away from the muck or rocks on the bottom. The next eleven fathoms is a denser “sink rope” which is tied off to a secondary buoy or “toggle” or “quart bottle,” which relieves tension on the pot buoy. A third length of eleven fathoms connects the toggle to the Styrofoam pot buoy, which floats on the surface, marking the spot for lobstermen to haul the gear later. If you do the math, a “thirty-fathom” warp is actually thirty-three fathoms.
- Avure Technologies says it can take up to forty-five seconds for the tanks to reach full pressure, and it’s unclear how long it takes a lobster to die. According to Bob Bayer at the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, a lobster in boiling water dies in about forty-five seconds, suggesting that HPP systems may be no more humane than boiling.
- Other named areas in the Head Harbor territory include the Dave Stanley Bottom, the Bull Bell, the Bull Breaker, East Ear Breaker, Michael’s Mistake, “The Worse Place Down There,” and the Bermuda Bottom, named by Melvin Bridges’s sternman one day when Melvin began steaming the boat south into deeper offshore water. “Where are you going to set these traps, Bermuda?” he’s said to have asked.
- Most lobster fishermen are, in fact, men, but a female sternman is still called a “sternman,” and a female fisherman is a “fisherman.” A few years ago, the Maine Lobstermen Association sold a novelty calendar called “Lobstering Women of Maine,” which used an awkward but acceptable parlance.
- Stonington fishermen confusingly refer to the waters of the East Penobscot Bay and Isle au Haut Bay as the “West Bay” or “Western Bay,” since the entire area is west of StoningtonHarbor. Waters to the east of Stonington are termed “East Bay,” although, if you look at a chart, the area is labeled “Jericho Bay.” I never heard Stonington fishermen refer to “Jericho Bay,” but apparently, the term is used by Swan’s Island fishermen, who are currently engaged in a dispute with Stonington fishermen about which waters should be available to whom.
- The legality of owning oversized lobster claws is complicated and unclear, especially since somebody else caught the lobster in a net, during a different regulatory period. While the statute of limitations probably prevents any legal action, a lobster with claws that size would almost certainly be illegal to take in Maine today, but not necessarily in Canada or the other New England states.
- The Stonington Co-op is a collectively owned business that lobster fishermen can choose to join. They own two piers in town, nearly half of the working waterfront, and Dick Bridges estimates close to half of Stonington’s full-time fishermen sell to the co-op. The co-op pays a “dividend,” since its members are technically co-owners. Many fishermen sell to Hugh Reynolds at Greenhead Lobster, who they consider to be as much of a fair dealer as possible in the brutal lobster whole-sale business. Reynolds pays a “bonus” to his loyal fishermen, since they aren’t co-owners. Anecdotally, Reynolds’s price is higher and his bonus is smaller than the co-op dividend. When I was in Stonington, Reynolds’s price was 30 cents a pound higher than the co-op, and both prices rose by 50 cents on the same day, apparently after a phone call between Reynolds and Ron Trundy, Rick’s cousin and the recently installed co-op manager.
- Soft-shelled lobsters have recently molted and are much more vulnerable to being jostled around or attacked by other lobsters. They sell for a lower price per pound because they haven’t filled out their new shell with muscle tissue, and much of their weight comes from salt water. Brent also sent “cows” and “pistols” to the processor. Cows have one claw, and pistols have no claws.
- Robin Alden is also married to Ted Ames, the MacArthur Fellow fisherman and scientist who uses a combination of oral history and science to map historic groundfish stocks, as part of a series of efforts to eventually restore groundfish stocks and groundfishing to the Gulf of Maine.
- There is evidence that the “whale ropes” are ineffective, that they are required in areas where whales rarely frequent, and that whales only get tangled in fishing gear if they are already sick or have been struck by boats.