12/06/2010

Why Maine and Lobster go Together

Why do people think of lobster when they think of the State of Maine? Our Atlantic or American lobster, Homarus americanus, ranges as far south as North Carolina, but the greatest abundance is in the cold waters of Maine and Atlantic Canada. In Maine, our 2009 harvest was 78 million pounds, valued at $228.6 million. Second in the U. S. was Massachusetts with 11.6 million pounds. Maine and Massachusetts account together for 92% of the lobster landings in the U.S.A. and of that, Maine’s share is 80%.

People watching the Discovery Channel’s Lobstermen or the earlier Lobster Wars may have been surprised to find an occupation similar to Alaska’s severe Deadliest Catch. But this type of fishing is not typical. Most lobster landings are closer to shore and from much smaller boats in the summer months. These familiar boats are what visitors see when they visit Maine. The TV show would probably have been a dismal failure without rough weather and boats big enough and out at sea long enough to host gossip and bitter quarrels.

Why do lobster landings keep going up in Maine? We keep hearing about overfishing and crashing stocks but lobsters continue to thrive…for now.

Rare colorful lobster caught in Maine

There are a few reasons why our lobster fishery is bucking the trend. First, lobsters are bottom feeders. They are able to thrive on a varied diet–whatever falls to the bottom or lives there. Crabs, starfish, dead fish. For a while, cowhide was being sold as a bait for traps! Secondly, the lobster’s main predator, cod has been overfished and essentially removed as a threat especially in shallow waters. Third, the growth of the urchin fishery has taken the pressure off the urchin’s food, kelp. It is thought that kelp beds are great nurseries for larval lobsters. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fishers and their equipment and methods preserve the resource better than just about all other fisheries. Think about it: The lobster is only taken when 1) it enters the trap looking for food, 2) it fails to figure out how to get out 3) the trap is hauled before a biodegradable link allows an escape hatch to open, 4) the lobster is between a certain size range, and 5) not a “v” notched or egg bearing female. These conservative measures make it almost impossible to overfish and return by some estimates, over 80% of trapped lobsters to the sea.  Compare this to massive trawlers pulling miles of nets or draggers pulling up everything from the bottom. Our lobster fishers deserve much credit for this inspired management!

How did lobster fishing  start? Before the arrival of Europeans, the Native Americans used the plentiful lobster as fertilizer and bait. The first lobster landing was reported in 1605 by James Rosier, a member of  Captain George Weymouth’s crew. Still, in colonial times lobster was considered “poverty food”, served to prisoners and indentured servants. In Massachusetts, servants even rebelled, demanding that they not be forced to eat lobster more than three times per week! After 1840, when canning became common, the lobster industry finally took off. At that time it was common to use over 5 pound lobsters, discarding anything under 2 pounds as not worth the effort. Nowadays in Maine, any lobster over 5 inches on the body shell (carapace) or about 4-1/2 lbs must be returned to the water.

Captain John Nicolai

How can I experience Maine lobstering? The first and most important thing to know is that it is extremely illegal to tamper with traps or gear in the water! Even an abandoned trap on shore is off limits. The way to experience the Maine lobster is first, have one for dinner. You may approach a lobster fisher at a public pier and he or she may be glad to sell you one or more, or visit one of our plentiful pounds. Secondly, visit the Maine Lobster Museum at the Mount Desert Oceanarium, and the nearby lobster hatchery. Finally, take a trip out on the water with a working lobster fisherman, Captain John Nicolai aboard his Lulu, setting off from Bar Harbor.

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